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Durham University

Human Resources & Organisational Development

Guidelines for Employees - 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 University’s Absence Management procedure is not a disciplinary procedure. Absence not due to genuine illness will be dealt with under the Disciplinary Procedure. Sick leave is recorded Oracle.

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.

Who is responsible for managing 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 work when she/he is fit to do so.

Notification of 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.

If you are absent for up to 3 calendar days, you are not required to provide evidence of incapacity.

If your absence extends to a 4th day and lasts up to 7 calendar days, a self-certification form should be completed and returned to your departmental absence administrator .

If your absence lasts longer than 7 calendar days, a Doctor's certificate (fit note) must be forwarded direct to your departmental absence administrator and you should inform your Line Manager of the period of absence covered by the certificate. In this event, the Doctor's Certificate (fit note) will be accepted as evidence of incapacity for the first 7 days and it will not then be necessary to complete the self-certificate.


Until such time as a Doctor's Certificate (fit note) is received it is your responsibility to inform your Line Manager on a daily basis of any continuing absence.

You should inform your Line Manager of the period of absence covered by the certificate.

Failure to comply with the reporting requirements could mean that a period of absence will be treated as unauthorised absence and sick payments withheld.


You should go back to work as soon as you feel able to and with your employer’s agreement - this may be before your fit note runs out. You do not need to go back to see your doctor before going back to work. Your doctor cannot give you a fit note stating that you are ‘fit for work’.

Medical appointments

Routine dentist and doctor appointments and routine check-ups.

Staff are expected, wherever possible, to make routine medical and dental appointment outside of their normal working day. If this is not possible appointments can be made during working time (subject to the demands of the business) and the time taken as flexitime (if a flexitime scheme is in operation where the member of staff works), or the time can be worked back over a mutually agreed period of time, or taken as annual leave.

It is possible, however, where it is deemed there is no reasonable alternative, for a line manager to use their discretion to grant time off for medical/dentist appointments, without the need to make up the time. In such cases, ideally the appointments should be scheduled at the beginning or end of the working day. A manager should consider the request on a case by case basis mindful of the need for consistency of treatment, fairness and the circumstances of the case.

It should be noted that the University is not legally required to give Staff time off to attend a doctor or dentist appointments with the exception that pregnant staff are allowed reasonable paid time off work for ante-natal care, including travelling time. This time does not need to be made up later on. In addition, staff with a recognised disability should be allowed to take off for a medical appointment connected with their disability.

The University may require staff to attend Occupational Health appointments in relation to fitness for work. Appointments will normally be scheduled during the normal working hours of the member of staff, the appointment and travelling time can be taken without a need to make the time up. If the University Occupational Health appointment results in an onward referral to another support service e.g. physiotherapy or counselling, the initial appointment and subsequent appointments (including travelling time) can be taken during normal working hours without a need to make the time up.

Hospital Appointments and non-routine Doctor/Dentist appointments

It is recognised that in the case of hospital appointments the level of influence the individual has over the day and time of the appointment can be limited. It is also acknowledged that often a hospital appointment may involve more travel than a visit to a local GP. Staff should be allowed time to attend hospital appointments, if this falls during a time when they should be working without the need to make the time up subject to the Manager having sight of the confirmation of the appointment. Hospital appointments are generally communicated well in advance, so short notice requests to attend should be limited.

It would be reasonable to view more complicated dental procedures, for example, root canal surgery as more akin to a hospital appointment and grant paid time off for a member of staff to attend.

It would also be reasonable to grant paid time off for more specialist lengthy appointments at a Doctor’s surgery where a time is allocated rather than the individual being able to select an appointment time. This would also apply to urgent ‘call-back’ appointments where a Doctor has requested the individual attend on a specific time/day.

Depending on the circumstances of the member of staff it may be that more than one appointment is required. The number of appointments relative to paid time off should be reasonable in the circumstances. Where appropriate advice should be sought from the relevant HR Business Partner.

Sickness absence and annual leave

Annual leave continues to accrue during periods of sickness absence.

An employee who falls sick during a period of annual leave, may claim back their annual leave. In order to claim back any period of annual leave, the employee must, unless there are exceptional circumstances, report their illness to their line-manager on the first day of their illness. The employee must also, regardless of the duration of the illness, provide documentary evidence which would normally be a statement from a doctor or a hospital covering the entire period of sickness during the annual leave. The University may also require details of and the duration of the illness and, if requested, the employee must arrange for any documents to be translated into English. The University reserves the right to raise further queries about the documentary evidence. Annual leave (and any associated sick pay) will only be available for any period covered by a medical statement. Annual leave may only be claimed back due to sickness absence if the employee would have been unfit to do their job. Annual leave cannot be claimed back where an employee could have come to work but their illness has infringed on their enjoyment of their holiday, for example a sprained ankle on a skiing holiday.

Where it is not possible for an employee to take their annual leave by the end of a holiday year due to long-term sickness absence (or where a period of illness coincides with annual leave at the end of the holiday year), a maximum of 4 weeks’ untaken annual leave (which will be pro-rated for part-time staff) can be carried forward. If an Employee fails to request their accrued and untaken holiday within 18 months of the holiday year in which they were off sick, then the holiday will be lost. Public or customary holidays that fall during a period of sickness absence will not be accrued or carried forward (and an appropriate deduction will be made in respect of part-time colleague’s pro-rata entitlement should any period of sick fall on public or customary days).

When taken, accrued annual leave will be paid at the normal rate of pay. The carrying forward of leave must be agreed with the employee’s line manager.

Employees may take annual leave while absent due to ill-health. If an employee wants to take annual leave during a period of sickness absence, they must notify their line-manager and HR in advance of the period of annual leave and state which days they wish to be treated as annual leave. The University may ask an employee to take annual leave at an alternative time.

Return to work

As a reminder, when you return to work you should inform your line manager or departmental absence administrator (dependant on individual departmental arrangements) of your return to work.

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. An email reminder is sent to your Line Manager when your department absence administrator inputs the end of your absence into Oracle.

The purpose of the meeting is to:

  • Welcome you back to work
  • Ensure you are 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
  • Discuss and/or identify any adjustments to the work place, duties or hours which may reduce/eliminate absences
  • Identify and address any problems (work related or otherwise) that may be causing or contributing to the absence
  • Agree priorities for the post-absence period

The general purpose of the interview 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. Discussions between you and your manager will be kept confidential so far as reasonably possible. If your manager is dissatisfied with the outcome of the return to work meeting then he/she will seek advice from the Human Resources (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 resuming 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 working environment

It may be necessary to make temporary or, in some cases, permanent adjustments to the workplace, your hours and/or duties to help reduce/eliminate future absence. If this is the case then your input and agreement will 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 will be consulted before any adjustments are made. Adjustments will also be considered in appropriate cases of short-term sickness absence.

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.

Frequent Intermittent Absence

Where there has been:

  • 3 or more absences in a 3 month period or
  • intermittent absences amounting to 10 days in a rolling year

the University recommends that managers trigger the Ill Health and Absence Regulation. A reminder notification is shown in Oracle.

Long-Term Absence

Any long-term absence of 4 weeks duration will trigger a notification email to your Line manager and the University Occupational Health Adviser. The Line Manager completes the referral documentation and then sends this to the University Occupational Health Adviser, who will take appropriate action in relation to the notified reason for absence including meeting with you and obtaining necessary medical reports. If your manager thinks it appropriate, absences of less than 4 weeks' duration may also be referred to the University's Occupational Health Adviser.

If you are referred to Occupational Health you are obliged to attend the appointment. If you are not able to attend due to illness, the Occupational Health Adviser will make arrangements to visit you at home.

It is important for your manager to maintain regular contact with you on long term absence throughout your period of absence. Where contact involves general enquiries regarding your welfare, informing you of social events taking place, or passing on the good wishes of the staff, contact may be made by telephone. All other communications will usually be in writing.

The Occupational Health Adviser will regularly review your situation and will liaise with your manager and keep him/her informed of any likely return to work date.

Consideration may be given to termination of your employment if you are 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.

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:

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are the implications for my Benefits+ arrangements if I drop to half pay as a result of long-term absence?
    Your Benefits+ arrangements will be reviewed. If there is a possibility that you will be disadvantaged you will be removed from Benefits+ and reinstated on your return to work, if appropriate.
  2. Can I refuse to attend a return to work meeting?
    Under the procedure everyone should attend a return to work interview. If the reason for your sickness absence is for a personal medical reason, and your line manager is of a different gender to yourself, you can ask to have the interview with someone of the same gender in your department. If no one is available in your department then, in exceptional circumstances, arrangements can be made for you to have a return to work interview with the Occupational Health Adviser.
  3. Can I be accompanied when attending a return to work meeting?
    The meeting is an informal discussion to ensure that you are fit to return to work and to determine whether or not any adjustments of a temporary or more permanent nature are required to be made to your "job". Being accompanied to the meeting suggests that you want the discussion to take place on a more formal basis and this is not the intention of the discussion.
  4. How long do I have to be absent from work before I have a return to work meeting?
    Any absence of one day or longer will require a return to work meeting. If you attend for work and then leave work because of sickness or an accident you should inform your line manager prior to leaving the workplace. Provided you return to work the next day, there will be no need for you to attend for a return to work meeting.
  5. How do I collect my personal possessions during my absence?
    If you are absent from your base of work for any length of time, it is your responsibility to have your personal possessions collected in a timely manner or to arrange with your manager for them to be stored, if this is possible.