The annual cost of sickness absence has climbed to almost $30 billion for Australian organisations, according to a study published recently by Direct Health Solutions.

Here is some practical advice and guidance for HR and line managers’ guidance on managing sickness absence. The most common problem survey respondents found was recurrent, short term absence.

Challenge for the manager

The challenge for managers is to balance, on the one hand, not being too pushy or encouraging the individual to go to work when they say they are unwell, or return to work sooner than they are healthy, and being “too soft” and not addressing recurrent patterns of behaviour or absence that are impacting the employees ability to perform their role. Being too pushy can lead to increased absence levels, a breakdown in the manager-employee relationship, and lower levels of engagement with the organisation.

On the other hand, HR practitioners and line managers need to have solid return to work interview practices and escalations in place when employee absence is perceived to be excessive. The average absence rate for employees is less than 4% per employee per annum. says that poor return to work practices for absenteeism can result in the employee feeling no one cares. Lack of management or failure to escalate complex or chronic cases early can result in continued absenteeism and take up significant amounts of management time.

Early intervention is key, and line managers need to know the levels of absence that require escalation, and have clear guidelines on what they are required to do to do that effectively to support policy.

What can be done?

There are some fundamental things HR practitioners and line managers should demonstrate to ensure they are fair and consistent when it comes to managing sickness absence, particularly recurring sickness absence.

A robust sickness absence management policy needs to be in place. A robust and consistent absence reporting and recording procedure is essential and should be applied equally to all staff. You cannot manage sickness absence if you do not record it. The 2013 Absence Survey revealed that nearly 40% of organisations are not recording absence accurately, and it is up to 25% under-reported.

If you are serious about managing absence, you need to face the truth about your absence levels.

Open communication lines that are aimed at developing or maintaining good attendance need to be in place. The employer needs to propose regular reviews to discuss the individual’s progress, problems and their return to work plans.
If there is a concern about the length or frequency of the individual’s absences from work, there is a possibility that there may be an underlying medical condition, and the employer may wish to engage the employee’s treating practitioners or arrange an independent medical assessment.

Return to work interviews

Return to work interviews should be used following every absence. There are both formal and informal return to work interviews. They are not disciplinary sessions. The have distinct objectives. Some of the topics to discuss with the individual concerned during the interview are:

  • Any ongoing medical condition
  • Any care or safety measures that need to be in place to facilitate the employees return to duties
  • Any health condition that may affect the employees ability to perform their duties
  •  Any recommendations made by the employee treating doctor
  • Are there any support services that the company may offer that are relevant
  •  Any concerns about outstanding workplace issues, such as problems with workplace relationships, outstanding grievances, complaints, etc.
  • When recurrent absences become problematic, trigger points will ensure that employees are put on HR or senior management radar.

Management Training

Managing absence is a complex issue and takes up significant management time, however it is a reality for all line managers. Managers, like anyone, will seek to have the skills and training to know how to manage absence in your organisation. Managing absence effectively involves understanding the drivers of absence, techniques to manage the different types of absence behaviour – motivated sickies through to genuine health conditions – and address cultures of entitlement.

Our advice to all HR managers is to ensure your managers have adequate policy and procedure training, and then ensure they have the competencies to conduct return to work interviews and develop support plans for employees.

Absence Triggers

Ever been surprised to hear how someone could have so much absenteeism before you know about it? To resolve these issues every occurring, implementing automated trigger management ensures that a) your line managers are advised to look more closely at employee absences, b) senior managers are alerted to employees who have high levels of absence, and c) when it keeps escalating, HR are alerted to ensure the case is being managed appropriately.

The objective of having triggers is to address the absenteeism constructively, for the employee, for the manager and for the organisation. Developing effective attendance support plans provides a pathway of mutually agreed action, or steps, the employee and company can take to improve the outcome. Too often, cases are allowed to continue without meaningful intervention. Triggers ensure that this process is more consistent and fair in your organisation.

The open discussions encourage employees to voice their concerns and request help. From the employer’s point of view, these discussions help to effectively manage and monitor sickness absence, particularly in most complex cases such as recurring absences. It also helps to ensure that the sickness management process is structured, consistent, clear and fair.


  • Exploring what sort of workplace support may be appropriate includes the following:
  • Considering what sort of workplace adaptations may be required, to suit the individual’s limitations.
  • Offering a phased return to work plan, based on the individual’s reported capabilities and limitations.
  • Considering amending the individual’s duties whilst on a phased return to work
  • Identifying an alternative suitable role, if required.
  • Arranging regular one-to-one reviews, to discuss progress, support and any problems.

My advice to HR practitioners and line managers is not to be afraid of honest discussions with the absent employees, particularly when sickness absence is recurring.

Contact Us

Contact us on 1300 655 123 to discuss your Absence Management and Injury Management Programs.