Publish date

31 August 2023

Acas guidance on sickness absence

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported in April this year that the sickness absence rate, which is the percentage of working hours lost due to sickness or injury, rose to 2.6% in 2022. This was the highest the absence rate has been since 2004, when the figure was 2.7%. The ONS noted that this translated into an estimated 185.6 million working days lost throughout the year, a record high amount. Notably, the trend of an increase in sickness or injury related absences was consistent across all age groups. Undoubtedly, a large contributor to these statistics was the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. In the latter stages of 2021, there was a reduction to the furlough scheme and a slow decline in homeworking and social distancing policies. This meant that employees and workers were returning back to working face-to-face more frequently, and exposed to new illnesses in the workplace.

To assist both employers and employees, Acas have recently issued new guidance on sickness absence, including rules and regulations on sick pay and advice on managing absences. In light of the statistics released by the ONS earlier this year showing a trend of increasing sickness and injury related absences, it is evident that employers and employees would benefit from reviewing this guidance and ensuring that their policies and procedures are up to date.

Sick pay

If somebody is off sick from work with either physical or mental health issues, they might have a right to receive sick pay.  The Acas guidance states that as a starting point, the employee’s contract should state how much sick pay is, how long sick pay can last, and any rules the employer has for using sick pay. An employer might choose to pay employees more than statutory sick pay (known as ‘company sick pay’), and in some cases, this might be discretionary. Discretionary sick pay is where an employer offers more than the statutory sick pay (SSP) for all or some sickness circumstances. Whilst employers are able to have discretionary sickness pay policies, any such policy must not be discriminatory or treat part-time employees any differently to full-time employees.

If employers do not have their own company sick pay policy, they must by law pay statutory SSP to employees and workers who are eligible for it. An employee or worker is eligible for SSP if they:

  • Have been off sick for at least four ‘qualifying days’ in a row. A qualifying day is one when an employee or worker would usually be required to work
  • Earn on average at least £123 per week (gross)
  • Have told their employer that they are sick within any deadline set by the employer, or within seven days.

As is suggested by the eligibility criteria, an employer does not have to pay SSP for the first three qualifying days of sickness absence, which are known as ‘waiting days’. However, some employers might choose to pay sick pay for these days in accordance with their own policy. An employer might ask their employee for a GP ‘fit note’ before they will pay SSP, but in practice GPs will rarely sign off patients unless they have been unwell for 7 days and their illness is likely to last more than 7 days or they recognise that their illness at the outset is unlikely to enable them to work. An employee must get a GP certificate if they have been off sick for more than seven calendar days. From the fourth qualifying day, SSP is £109.40 per week, and can be paid for up to 28 weeks.

Employees will continue to accrue holiday whilst off sick, even if they are not receiving sick pay. Therefore, if sick pay runs out, employees might request that they take additional time off by way of holiday entitlement.

Managing a return from absence

It is not a legal requirement to have a return to work meeting when somebody returns following an absence, but the Acas guidance suggests that this is good practice. It is a good opportunity to make sure the employee is ready to return to work, to talk about an updates at the workplace, to organise any support that might be needed and agree a plan for returning to work, for example, whether there might need to be a phased return to work.

It might be agreed that a phased return to work is appropriate in certain circumstances, for example, for an employee who has been off with a long-term illness, a serious or injury, or absent following a bereavement. It will be down to the employer and employee to agree exactly how long the phased return will last, and what form it might take, but it might be that the employee starts on reduced hours, does work that is slightly different to their usual job, or has a lighter workload.

The Acas guidance states that employers should be flexible, and ensure they are regularly monitoring an employee’s phased return in order to support their health and wellbeing. For example, the employer might need to extend the phased return to work, or agree new changes to the employee’s responsibilities or work pattern. If an employee returns to their usual work, but on reduced hours, they should receive their usual rate of pay for the hours that they now work. If the employee has a lighter workload, the employer and employee should agree a rate of pay, and set this out in writing.

If you would like any advice on a sickness policy or managing a sickness absence, please contact a member of the Employment Team.

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