What is staff absence management?

Staff absence management describes how employers monitor, handle, and work to prevent staff absence where possible. 

For a business, that might involve: 

  • Using data to deduce why absences occur and taking action to reduce patterns of absence 
  • Looking after staff’s wellbeing and supporting employees returning from long-term sick leave 
  • Having a sickness absence policy so managers and staff know what to do if someone is off work due to sickness. 
HR staff managing sickness absence at work

Why is managing sickness absence becoming more important? 

Sickness absence is on the rise. Before the pandemic, the average length of sickness absence was 5.8 days. Today it’s 7.8 days. 

While there’s not much you can do if an employee catches the flu, there’s one critical cause of absence that businesses do have influence over: stress.  

Stress is the leading cause of long-term employee absence. And as more staff call in sick, the knock-on effect on their colleagues intensifies. 

With a proactive approach to absence management, businesses can combat rising stress levels. 

The IRIS HR guide to Absence Management guide thumbnail image

Featured Guide

The IRIS HR guide to Absence Management 

This free comprehensive guide is ideal for businesses, employers, and HR professionals looking to get to grips with staff absence management. 

It covers: 

  • Types of absence overview 
  • The impact of presenteeism  
  • Guidance on absence policy  
  • Tips to reduce staff absence 
  • Absence management software. 

What is presenteeism and why is it critical to absence management? 

Presenteeism occurs when an employee comes to work (or works from home) despite being sick or otherwise not up to working. 

The results can be far-reaching, affecting: 

  • The employee’s physical and/or mental health 
  • Their productivity levels 
  • Colleagues picking up the slack 
  • The overall health of the business. 

Presenteeism can be encouraged by the workplace’s atmosphere. If there’s a culture of “work ‘til you drop”, staff may pick up on this and compromise their health and wellbeing to adhere to it. 

HR team discussing presenteeism in the office

What types of staff absence are there? 

To help you improve how your business manages employee absence, it’s worth reviewing what falls under the umbrella of absence at work.  

  • Sickness and injury

    When an employee falls ill or suffers an injury, they’ll need to take time away from work. This could mean a few days absence or long-term leave to recover. 

    • If an employee is off sick for seven days (including weekends) or less, they can ‘self-certify’ their absence. 
    • If sickness absence lasts for over seven days, they’ll need to provide a fit note (AKA a sick note). 
    • If someone is away for over four weeks, they’re considered on long-term sick.  
    • To get sick pay, staff need to have an employment contract and earn a minimum amount a week 
  • Maternity leave

    If one of your staff is pregnant, they must legally receive Statutory Maternity Leave, which includes time off before and after the birth. 

    • To qualify, staff must have a contract of employment with you and have given notice 15 weeks before the due date. 
    • They need to provide proof, such as a MAT B1 form, to verify the pregnancy. 
    • After 24 weeks of pregnancy, the employee is entitled to full Statutory Maternity Leave whatever the outcome of the birth.  
    • They can take anywhere from two to 52 weeks of leave, depending on individual circumstances. 

    Read more about statutory payment during Maternity Leave on the UK Government website. 

  • Paternity Leave

    Paternity Leave entitles employees to take up to two working weeks off when their child is born or adopted. It must be taken and end within the first 56 days of the birth or adoption. 

    Paternity Leave doesn’t just refer to a new father, and can include: 

    • Employees who are the partner to the person giving birth 
    • An employee adopting a child 
    • An employee stepping into a co-parental role to a new child.
  • Shared Parental Leave

    Shared Parental Leave and Pay allows eligible staff to split up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay.  

    This leave can be taken in blocks or in one go, depending on preference. The pay they receive is equitable to maternity leave, which you can read more about on the UK Government website

  • Unpaid Parental Leave

    Unpaid Parental Leave is planned in advance and is designed to allow staff to look after their child’s welfare. 

    Staff can take unpaid parental leave for things like: 

    • Spending more time with children 
    • Looking at new schools 
    • Helping children adjust to new childcare arrangements. 

    For every child (including adopted children), your staff get a total of 18 working weeks they can take as unpaid leave.   

  • Unpaid leave to care for loved ones

    Staff can opt to take unpaid leave to care for someone in their household, such as a civil partner, spouse, child, or parent.  

    In this instance, staff can also make arrangements with their employer to be able to provide long-term care. 

  • Public duties

    Employees are allowed a “reasonable” amount of time off if they’re fulfilling a role in which they’re performing a public duty, including as a: 

    • Local councillor or magistrate  
    • School governor, or member of a school council in Scotland 
    • Member of any statutory tribunal  
    • Trade union member (for trade union duties). 

    For most of these, you can ask staff to defer their leave if it would cause difficulties in your business. You can also choose not to pay them for this leave. 

Frequently asked questions

While businesses need to focus on employee absence management to reap the rewards of happier, healthier staff, there’s plenty to get your head around. 

Learn more about managing staff absence with these FAQs. 


According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), there are three methods to measure absence.  

  1. The ‘lost time’ rate measures the percentage of time lost from absence. You can split this by department to pinpoint areas of concern 
  1. The frequency rate shows how many absences each employee has taken as a percentage 
  1. The Bradford Factor measures persistent spells of short-term absence.  

You can learn more about how these figures are calculated on the CIPD website. 

The Bradford Factor was created to measure and manage multiple instances of short-term employee absence within a 52-week spell.  

An employee’s Bradford Factor absence score is calculated based absence frequency, rather than duration. Someone who’s been absent for 10 non-consecutive days will have a much higher score than someone who’s been absent for five days in a row twice throughout the year. 

While it can be a useful tool, it’s worth noting that according to the CIPD Absence Management Survey, the Bradford Factor can unfairly penalise employees who have a health condition.

Absenteeism is a habitual pattern of absence from a duty or obligation without good reason. Generally, absenteeism refers to unplanned absences. 

Ideally, all employers should have a robust absence policy in place, which should address sickness absence.  

Your policy could include:   

  • Directions for staff when calling in sick, e.g. “Contact your line-manager” 
  • What constitutes long-term sick leave, such as how many days into a period of absence long-term sick leave begins 
  • An agreed definition of an unauthorised absence 
  • What will trigger a formal absence review, e.g. An employee not communicating that they’re off sick. 

If an employee is off sick for over seven days including weekends, they’ll need to provide a fit note (traditionally referred to as a sick note). 

Employees can get a fit note from relevant healthcare professionals, including: 

  • Their GP or a hospital doctor 
  • A registered nurse 
  • An occupational therapist or physiotherapist 
  • A pharmacist 

The fit note will explain the employee is either ‘not fit for work’ or ‘may be fit for work’; in the case of the latter, it’s up to the employer to manage a potential return-to-work. 

When an employee is off sick, they may be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). 

To be eligible for SSP, an employee must: 

  • Have an employment contract and earn a minimum amount a week 
  • Be absent due to sickness for at least four days (including any non-working days) 
  • Tell their employer within seven days if they are sick. 

There’s a minimum amount you must pay them – although, as an employer, you can choose to pay more. Check here for the most recent amount set by the UK Government. 

When organising the return of an employee who’s been on long-term sick, you might wish to: 

  • Take into consideration the employee’s insights into their own health 
  • With the employee’s written consent, order a GP report (can cost the employer £60 to £100)  
  • With consent, secure a report from an occupational health specialist (upwards of £300) 
  • Offer a phased return to work and modified performance targets 
  • Arrange reasonable adjustments, e.g. a designated car park space. 

An unauthorised absence occurs when an employee does not come to work, doing so without permission or following agreed procedure. 

Examples of unauthorised absence include: 

  • Being off sick without notifying their employer 
  • Extending maternity leave past the legal entitlement without consultation  
  • Remaining off sick more than seven days without contacting the employer/supplying a fit note. 

When managing a case of suspected unauthorised absence, Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) advises employers to consider the employee’s wellbeing first and foremost. 

  • Try to reach out and check on the employee 
  • If they can’t be reached, consider a home visit (if appropriate) 
  • If you’re concerned for their safety, arrange a welfare check from police. 

Whatever the outcome, businesses must follow process and procedure. Dismissal for unauthorised absence should be a last resort, reached only after a fair disciplinary procedure.

Digital presenteeism is a specific type of presenteeism affecting people who work from home. It occurs when staff feel they need to be present at the monitor in their home office (as opposed to being in the workplace), even if they are not well enough to be working in any capacity. This could be because they might otherwise face social judgement, disciplinary action, or other negative consequences.

Return-to-work interviews are totally optional, and an employer can choose whether to use them as part of their absence management strategy.  

However, making these interviews part of your absence procedure can have two key advantages: 

  • They help staff feel cared for, as you can discuss ways the employee could be supported as they return to work. 
  • It can create a deterrent for anyone thinking of taking unnecessary leave. 

All employees are allowed to take time off for jury duty. While you are allowed to ask your employee to try and change the date or request to be excused, you must accommodate the employee in completing jury service as much as possible.  

Employers can choose to pay staff for time taken off to perform jury duty, but they don’t have to. 

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