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Poor use of sickness policies puts employees at risk of 'unreasonable' treatment

A study into the nature of ill-treatment and bullying in the workplace warns that management frustration with absent staff can all too easily cross the line and become 'unreasonable treatment'.

The study from the Economic and Social Research Council found that employees with impairments, disabilities and long-term health conditions were far more likely to be at risk of unreasonable treatment.

It discovered that employees with conditions such as cancer, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and bowel disorders were seven times more at risk of being pressured not to claim an entitlement, and three times more likely to report someone was always checking up on them.

The report said that employees with impairments and health problems were 'put at risk of unreasonable treatment because of the manner in which employers deal with sick leave, returning to work after sickness absence, the management of ongoing conditions (for example, providing time off to attend hospital or other sources of therapy), and the "reasonable adjustments" to work and the workplace required by UK legislation'.

Handling sickness absence can be a very delicate matter, requiring patience, sensitivity and compassion. Regular contact is important, but not in a pressured way that gives the employee the impression of being harassed. Even in situations when there are suspicions an illness is being drawn out to delay a return to work, sensitivity is needed.

Many employers agree 'trigger points' with staff so that both sides know where they stand with persistent absences. If regular absences trigger action, then an employee might reasonably be asked to forward medical notes or certificates (though this must be agreed).

It could well be considered poor treatment to quiz employees over their attendance record when they have to attend hospital regularly. On the other hand, repeated unexplained or unjustified absences may be treated as a conduct issue and lead to disciplinary action and ultimately dismissal.

Acas gives detailed advice on Absence, has created a step-by-step guide on Managing staff absence - Be prepared: Know the basics, and has published the Advisory booklet - Managing attendance and employee turnover, which answers many questions about sickness absence issues. The Discipline and grievances at work guide also includes an appendix about dealing with absence, and in particular long-term sickness absence. Acas also offers practical training on Absence and many related areas.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects page for more information.

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