Attendance Management

by Kate Russell


At the organisational level, the costs of absence can be substantial. High absence levels tend to mean high overheads. Some indication of cost to the organisation is obtained simply by adding up the days of lost production and assessing the extra burden on the organisation’s sick pay scheme.

Other costs include the following:

  • Unnecessarily high staffing levels and overtime payments
  • Replacement labour
  • Delayed production
  • Management time
  • Lower quality or levels of service
  • Disruption of the flow of work
  • Low morale and general dissatisfaction, resulting in low productivity.

Sickness absence in the UK

The average number of sickness absence days taken by UK workers has almost halved from 7.2 days in 1993 when records began, though the rate started to fall overall from 3% in 1999.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the total number of days lost through absence across the UK economy in 2017 fell to an average of 4.1 days per employee.

Absence levels varied between occupations, from a rate of 0.9% for managers and senior officials to 2.8% for those working in caring, leisure and other service occupations.

Absence rates are also low for “professional” and “associated professional and technical” occupations at 1.7% and 1.6% respectively, while the rates are higher for ‘elementary’ occupations (2.6%) and process, plant and machine operatives (2.2%).

The sickness absence rate is 1.7% in the private sector and 2.6% in the public sector. The figures show that, since the economic downturn of 2008, sickness rates in the public sector have fallen faster than in the private sector. Public sector health workers had the highest absence rate at 3.3%.

The sickness absence rate is highest among large organisations with more than 500 employees. In 2017, this stood at 2.3% compared with 1.6% in organisations with fewer than 25 staff.

Employees have a higher sickness absence rate than self-employed workers (2% compared with 1.3%).

“Minor illnesses”, including coughs and colds, was the main reason given for sickness absence and accounted for more than a quarter (34.3 million days) of the total number of days lost in 2017.

In the five years between 2010 and 2015, musculoskeletal problems were responsible for the most number of days lost through sickness absence across the UK workforce. Musculoskeletal problems, including back and joint pain, remained the second most common reason for sickness absence and attributed to 28.2 million days lost. They resulted in 20.8% of 50- 60-year-olds and 18.7% of 35-to 49-year-olds being off work.

A further 14.3 million days were lost last year due to stress, depression and anxiety. There has been an increase in the proportion of younger workers aged 25 to 34 who attribute their sickness absence to mental health conditions, rising from 7.2% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2017.

There is also a divide between the sexes in sickness absence; the sickness rate is 1.5% for men and 2.4% for women.

The statistics show that men take more time off with musculoskeletal conditions (28% compared with 18.4% of women), while women are more likely than men to cite mental health conditions as the reason for sickness absence (8.1% compared with 5.7%).

The lowest rate of sickness was recorded in London (1.1%) while workers in Wales had the highest rate at 2.7%.

Reasons for absence

There are several types of absence:

  • Short-term sickness absence (uncertificated, self-certificated or covered by a doctor’s certificate)
  • Long-term sickness absence
  • Unauthorised absence or persistent lateness
  • Other authorised absences: for example, statutory rights to leave (annual leave, maternity, paternity, adoption, or parental leave, time off for public or trade union duties, or to care for dependents) or contractual rights (compassionate leave).

Unauthorised absence should be dealt with through the disciplinary process as it is a misconduct matter. There are, however, many legitimate reasons why an employee might be absent.


The Employment Rights Act provides that employees must be given time off by their employers to attend public duties. This not only includes sitting as a magistrate but also certain duties involved with, for example, being a member of a local authority, policy authority, board of prison visitors or prison visiting committee.

In terms of the amount of time allowed, there is no prescribed level but it must be ‘reasonable in the circumstances’. In R-W’s case her appointment as a magistrate required her to sit for 13 days per year. However, her employer, A Ltd would only allow her five days’ unpaid leave to attend to her public duties and told her to use her annual leave to cover the remaining eight days. R-W resigned and brought a claim of constructive dismissal and breach of her statutory right to take reasonable time off to attend public duties.

Initially, the employment tribunal held that A Ltd had not prevented the applicant taking time off to carry out her public duties and that her resignation did not amount to a constructive dismissal in the circumstances. However, R-W successfully appealed against this decision and the Employment Appeal Tribunal said that the tribunal had failed to have proper regard to the provision of the Employment Rights Act covering time off for public duties. They said that the tribunal should not have considered whether time off was given, but rather whether the applicant was given ‘a reasonable amount of time off’, which should be assessed objectively with reference to the requirements of the particular public office held and the needs of the employer’s business. One thing that was highlighted by this case was that not only are some employers unaware of their obligations in this area, but that all employers should have a clear policy in place and ensure that this is communicated to all staff and exercised consistently. When deciding what time off to allow an employee, the employer should look at matters objectively and consider both the demands of the business as well as the employee’s position.