LRD Booklets December 2018

Sickness absence and sick pay - a guide for trade unions and working people



[pages 5-6]

The context for negotiations and representation over sickness absence and sick pay has moved on since the last LRD guide was published in 2015. Overall unemployment is low, there is a tightening labour market with a record level of vacancies, and government statistics suggest that levels of sickness absence have fallen steadily.

The direction of government policy has shifted from controlling sickness absence to getting people into work and keeping them there — including a million more disabled people. At the same time, the government is contemplating a reform of the Statutory Sick Pay scheme (SSP) so that it fits better with the increasingly casualised, zero hours, gig economy that is now part of the UK labour market.

There is also a heightened awareness that mental health problems are widespread, some no doubt linked to work-related stress and workload. There also seems to be greater recognition of other health pressures within the workforce, and the need to address employee wellbeing.

The 2018 Health and wellbeing at work report, produced jointly bythe Chartered Instituteof Personnel and Development (CIPD) and healthcare insurers Simplyhealth, suggests that employers now need to “dig deep” and take action to combat the root problems causing poor mental health, such as unmanageable workloads. This could include an employee wellbeing strategy (see Chapter 3) and a “whole organisation” response with serious leadership commitment, supportive line management, and action in order to:

• understand the underlying patterns of absence and attendance;

• tailor policies and practices to organisational and employee needs;

• build a more robust framework to promote good mental health;

• make a persuasive business case for investing in a healthy culture; and

• strengthen the capability of line managers.

Trade unions, which today represent around six million members, see harsh absence control policies, the low level of SSP and inadequate occupational sick pay schemes as high negotiating priorities. They continue to work to reduce the likelihood of unpaid sickness absence, boost the level and duration of sick pay, and press for a fairer and more considerate approach to sickness absence.

None of us knows when we might need the support of a good sick pay scheme and a fair absence management policy. The aim of this booklet is to highlight the issues that need to be addressed in securing one, and to help reps support members who are off sick.

The booklet updates LRD’s guidance for union reps on sick pay and absence management by taking recent developments and trends into account. It includes examples from a range of workplaces and collective agreements, among them the NHS Agenda for Change agreement.

Chapter 1: focuses on four elements that provide the context for sick pay:

• government policy and employer thinking about sickness and disability;

• what the latest absence statistics reveal;

• what is understood about the causes of sickness absence (including specific topics like menopause and migraine); and

• the “union effect” — the union role in trying to improve sick pay and absence management.

Chapter 2: looks at the elements of absence management policy, including the overall legal framework, which includes some of the rules surrounding the Statutory Sick Pay scheme, including notification and the Fit Note; other forms of medical advice and assessment; return to work arrangements; trigger points; and rehabilitation.

Chapter 3: looks at equality. Equality legislation is becoming increasingly important to the way that employers and the government approach sickness absence and disability and should be high on the list of priorities.

Chapter 4: looks at wellbeing. The need for wider workforce wellbeing has risen up the agenda of union and employer concerns.

Chapter 5: focuses on Statutory Sick Pay.

Chapter 6: examines occupational sick pay which plays a key role in supporting employee income at times of ill health.

Chapter 7: moves on to look at capability, discipline and dismissal. Sickness absence can lead to dismissal and it often falls to the tribunals and courts to judge the reasonableness and legality of an employer’s actions. Case law in this area is an important part of the trade union armoury.

Legal references

The booklet also refers to legal cases that are relevant to sickness and absence. They are referenced by name and where they can be looked up, either in Industrial Relations Law Reports (IRLR) published by LexisNexis Butterworths or the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (

Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) cases can be found on the government website at: and Court of Appeal cases can be found at