We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Human Resources & Organisational Development

Guidelines for Managers - Sickness Absence

Some absence due to sickness is inevitable within any large organisation and sickness absence needs to be dealt with in a fair, understanding and sympathetic way. Absence is costly. It has an adverse effect upon colleagues and on the level and quality of service that the University provides. Effective monitoring of all forms of absence, and a consistency of approach, are essential if absence levels are to be maintained at, or below, sector standards/averages. The Absence Management Procedure is not a disciplinary procedure. Absence not due to genuine illness should be dealt with under the Disciplinary Procedure.

Ill Health and Absence Regulation

This regulation applies to all staff, including academic staff who have completed probation. Please refer to the Ill Health and Absence Regulation.

Manager's Checklist for Sickness Absence

  • Ensure the sickness absence policy is publicised within your Department/College
  • Record all occurrences of absence at departmental level using Oracle
  • Ensure records are accurate and up to date
  • Hold return to work meetings
  • Make regular contact with long-term absent employees
  • Take appropriate action at the right time
  • Refer to HR Department and Occupational Health Adviser

Further information is available in our Practical Guide to Managing Absence - see related links for the full guide.

Formal / Informal Action Guidelines

Who is responsible for managing sickness absence?

  • Line Managers (supervisors, section heads, etc.) are the people best placed to manage absence in their areas of responsibility.
  • Every employee has a responsibility to attend for work when she/he is fit to do so.

How is sickness absence managed?

The management of sickness absence is not always an easy and straightforward process. It is important to treat each case individually. There is no one easy answer to effective absence management. The University works to ensure that factors relating to the workplace and work process do not adversely impact on sickness levels. Managers need to ensure that they use a variety of methods to control and minimise absence levels.

The essential elements of managing sickness absence are:

  1. Publicising the absence procedure
  2. Keeping accurate records in Oracle Cloud
  3. "Return to work" meetings
  4. Regular meetings with long-term absent employees
  5. Establishing a clear plan of action
  6. Asking for specialist help and advice from the HR Office and Occupational Health Service.

Monitoring and recording absence

Monitoring and recording absence accurately requires a continuous and co-ordinated effort by managers. Managers must keep a record of every absence of each individual reporting to them. Accurate records are the only way to identify when and where problems are occurring; they also provide a historical record for determining patterns of absence for individual employees and departments. This information is essential if absence is to be managed effectively and fairly. From 11th November 2019, Oracle cloud will assist administrators and managers in monitoring and recording.

All occurrences of sickness absence, including half days should be recorded by Managers or a delegated administrator. The record should include:

  • The reason for the absence (as stated on the self-certification or fit note), and
  • The length of the absence, including half days

If a member of staff attends work but is unable to stay for more than half of their normal working day, this must be recorded as a half day of absence.

If a member of staff goes home unwell after being at work for more than half of their normal working day, this would not be recorded as a half day of absence. The sickness absence would start the following day if the member of staff remains unwell and unable to attend work.

Payroll will extract a report of absence from the system by the 5th of the following month so that Occupational and Statutory Sick payments may be made.

To ensure that all employees are aware of the need to inform their department of any sickness absence it is important to fully explain the departmental requirements during the Induction Process for new staff. This process should include who should be contacted and by what time, it may be that the department identifies one individual who is responsible for recording absence.

All staff have a responsibility, under their contract of employment and / or under the terms of the Sickness Pay Scheme, to contact their department as early as possible on the first day of absence; and no later than normal commencement of work or shift start time. This is important as alternative arrangements, to ensure that all necessary work is covered, may have to be put into place.


Until such time as a Doctor's Certificate (fit note) is received it is the employee's responsibility to inform their Line Manager on a daily basis of any continuing absence. Doctor's Certificates (fit note) should be forwarded direct to the Salaries Office and the employee should inform the Line Manager of the period of absence covered by the certificate.

Hold a return to work meeting

A return to work meeting is the most effective means of helping to reduce absence levels. To be consistent, everyone returning from a period of absence, whatever the duration, must have a return to work meeting with his or her Line Manager.

The purpose of the meeting is to:

  • Welcome the employee back to work
  • Ensure the employee is fully fit to return (has she/he been signed off by his/her own doctor and/or the University's medical adviser?)
  • Identify the reason for the absence
  • Confirm the length of absence
  • To discuss and/or identify any adjustments to the work place, duties or hours which may reduce/eliminate absences
  • To identify and address any problems (work related or otherwise) that may be causing or contributing to the absence
  • To agree priorities for the post-absence period and to up-date the employee

Guidelines on how to conduct a return to work meeting, and a suggested format for a return to work meeting form, can be found at

The general purpose of the meeting is to establish the facts and see if any action may be taken to reduce/eliminate future absence. This return to work meeting is not a disciplinary interview. Managers should treat individuals in a sensitive manner. It is important that there is no prejudgement. Discussions between an employee and the manager will be kept confidential so far as reasonably possible. If a manager is dissatisfied with the outcome of the return to work meeting then he/she should seek advice from the HR Office before taking any action.

Phased Return

All phased returns must be discussed with Occupational Health and HR.

Phased returns will normally be for a four week period, with full time working resumed after four weeks. A period in excess of four weeks for a phased return can only be agreed following further discussions with Occupational Health and HR. Full pay will only be paid for a maximum of four weeks, thereafter the rate of pay will normally be reduced to the number of hours the member of staff is able to work.

Adjustments to the working environment

It may be necessary to make temporary or, in some cases, permanent adjustments to the workplace, hours and/or duties of an employee to help reduce/eliminate future absence. If this is the case then the employee's input and agreement should be sought to any changes and to when such changes will be reviewed. The Occupational Health Adviser will be able to provide both help and guidance in this process and must be consulted before any adjustments are made. The Occupational Health Adviser may have already been involved if the case is one of long-term sickness absence. Adjustments must also be considered in appropriate cases of short-term sickness absence.

Please also refer to the fit note guidance.

Specialist help and advice

There are two sources of specialist help and advice available: -

The HR Office can help at any stage of the process and will advise on what steps need to be taken.

Occupational Health will assist with medical referrals and workplace assessments if the absence is due to work-related problems affecting the health of the individual. If an employee is returning from a period of long term absence, advice may be given as to how to effect a progressive return to "full-time working". Occupational Health will also advise on what reasonable adjustments may be made to reduce/eliminate absence and/or facilitate a return to work.

Please also refer to the fit note guidance.

Different types of sickness absence

Sickness absence will generally fall into two main categories, both of which require different approaches:

  • Frequent intermittent absence – normally defined by the University as persistent short-term absence that may follow a pattern.
  • Long-term absence - normally defined by the University as a continuous period of absence in excess of four weeks.

Frequent Intermittent Absence

Managers must conduct Return to Work meetings after any absence. In addition a manager may start the Absence Management Procedure if he/she has concerns about an employee's level of absence. In any event the University recommends that the Ill Health and Absence Regulation starts:

  • Where there has been three or more absences in a three month period
  • There have been intermittent absences amounting to ten days in a rolling year

Frequent intermittent absence normally lasts for one or two days but such absence is often sporadic and attributable to minor ailments that may appear to be unconnected. Sometimes the member of staff will be absent for up to a week (therefore not requiring a Doctor's Certificate) but more often absence will be for one or two days.

The fact that this absence is sporadic and the reasons for it apparently unconnected mean that it may be challenging for a manager to deal with it. It is important to maintain accurate and up-to-date absence records and to seek the advice and support of the HR Department and Occupational Health Service.

When reviewing frequent and intermittent absence, special attention needs to be paid to the fact that often the reason for each absence is different. However the Manager should remember that apparently unconnected absence reasons may relate to a chronic underlying condition. Hence the need to consider referral to the Occupational Health Service before action is taken. See for guidance on referring a matter to the Occupational Health Service.

The Ill Health and Absence Regulation can be found at Ultimately, this Procedure may lead to a dismissal because of the incapability to perform duties required.

There are normally three matters to consider when considering holding an Absence Management Interview:

  1. Conduct
    Where it is evident that the facts concern a conduct issue, for example, non-genuine illness, abuse of procedures or submission of a fraudulent medical certificate, the matter should be dealt with under the University's Disciplinary Procedure.
  2. Health
    It should be stressed that an inability to attend work due to genuine frequent sickness absence is not a disciplinary matter. Emphasis should be placed on:-
    'cautions' rather than 'sanctions'
    'review periods' rather than 'live warnings'
    'consultation' rather than 'hearings'
  3. Continued Employment
    It is appropriate for a member of staff to be warned that a continued pattern of frequent/intermittent absence may place their employment in jeopardy.

Long-Term Absence

Long-term absence can be broadly defined as medically certified absences lasting four weeks or more. It can normally be distinguished from frequent intermittent absence in that it tends to be continuous and an underlying medical condition is usually identified.

Any long-term absence of four weeks duration must be referred to the University Occupational Health Adviser, who will take appropriate action in relation to the notified reason for absence including meeting with the employee and obtaining necessary medical reports. If a manager thinks it appropriate, absences of less than four weeks' duration may also be referred to the University's Occupational Health Adviser. See for guidance on referring a matter to the Occupational Health Service.

If an employee is referred to Occupational Health they are obliged to attend the appointment. If they are unable to attend due to illness the Occupational Health Adviser will make arrangements to visit them at home.

It is important for a manager to maintain regular contact with employees on long term absence throughout their period of absence. Where contact involves general enquiries regarding the individual's welfare, informing the employee of social events taking place, or passing on the good wishes of the staff, telephone contact is appropriate. (The manager should keep a written note of what contact has taken place and when, however). All other communications should be in writing.

The Occupational Health Adviser will regularly review the situation of a long-term absent employee and will liaise with the relevant manager and keep him/her informed of any likely return to work date.

Consideration may be given to termination of employment if an employee is unable to return to work either at all or within a reasonable period of time, and there are no adjustments to workplace, hours or duties that would facilitate a return. In this case, action would be taken under the Ill Health and Absence Regulation.

The Occupational Health Adviser will inform a manager if an employee is unable to return to work, as set out above.

It is important that the advice of the HR Office is sought before any form of action is taken.

Fit for Work Service

The Government introduced the ‘Fit for Work’ Service in autumn 2015. This service enables employers and GP’s to refer an employee who is off sick for four weeks or longer (or, in the case of a GP, he/she expects the employee to reach four weeks absence) to the new ‘Fit for Work’ service for an occupational health assessment. You will be assigned a caseworker who will discuss your condition, your job and any factors that may be affecting your return to work. The assessment will result in a Return to Work Plan being produced with advice and recommendations. This plan would be discussed with your manager, HR and the University’s occupational health adviser and consideration given to the recommendations made. The Return to Work Plan provides evidence of sickness absence in the same way as a fit note issued by a GP.

As the University has its own in-house occupational health provider we see this service as complementing our current provision rather than replacing it. We will continue to routinely refer employees to our in-house occupational health adviser as set out in our absence policy. We do not expect to refer employees who are off sick to the Fit for Work Service. A referral to the Fit for Work Service will not replace any requirement for you to attend an appointment with the University’s occupational health adviser.

Any referral to the Fit for Work Service requires your consent. If your GP suggests a referral, and you agree, you are advised to speak to your HR contact to confirm the appropriate person for your caseworker to contact, if appropriate, if they have further questions regarding your role at the University.

If you are contacted by the Fit For Work service as a Manager, in relation to an employee that is off sick, please refer the caseworker to your HR contact in the first instance.

The service also provides free online or telephone advice for employees on any work-related health issue. See or telephone 0800 032 6235.

For further information on the scheme see: