The new “get tough” absence management regimes are starting to bite as more staff are dismissed for poor work attendance. Absence management in the public sector has historically been a problem, with the average public sector worker taking 10 days sick leave a year, compared with four days in the private sector.

Of even greater concern has been the small but significant number of people on long-term sick leave on full pay for six months and then on half-pay for a further six months.

‘In my experience the attendance panels are sympathetic but sceptical’

While no one doubts the need for extended paid sick leave for those recovering from major operations there are always frustrations about those whose sick notes refer to a bad backs or stress. I was therefore not surprised to read that the man off on long-term sick leave with stress had been dismissed by his employer when he appeared in newspapers and online across the world wrestling a shark on an Australian beach.

Most cases heard by attendance panels are less dramatic: an individual has been off work for several weeks, their manager has kept in touch but the individual is unable to say when they will be fit to return to work, the GP’s sick note simply confirms the individual is not fit for work and the referral to occupational health has produce a report which is unable to give a time scale for a return to duties.

Harsh climate

In the past many organisations would simply accept the situation and allow the individual to run out of pay at the end of 12 months. But not in the current financial climate.

These days an individual off for more than four weeks with no date for return could find themselves subject of a medical assessment by the occupational health service and once the report is received a date to appear before an attendance panel.

Too ill to attend the panel? Well we could rearrange but will you be feeling any better next week? What if the GP confirms that the individual is too stressed or anxious to attend? Well the meeting goes ahead and the individual can be represented by their union rep or a friend or family member. They can also have a letter or statement read to the panel saying why they should continue to be employed.

Tough approach

But unless they are giving a credible timescale for a return to work then the panel will dismiss them. Some attend and ask for a phased return to work or to negotiate “light” duties. In my experience the panels are sympathetic but sceptical, so agree on the condition that the case is reviewed again in four weeks to see if the person has returned and it’s working out. Often they don’t return on the agreed date, sending in another sick note, or they return only to go off sick again.

‘The people who were dismissed were disproportionately low-paid staff, cleaners, catering staff and care workers’

In these circumstances the tough approach may seem reasonable but it is never quite that straightforward once you look into individual circumstances. This approach can be very unsympathetic to people with mental health problems, bearing in mind that something like one in eight of us will suffer mental health issues at some point in our lives.

As a regular chair of one of these attendance panels I’ve seen that in reality the people who were dismissed were disproportionately low-paid staff, cleaners, catering staff, care workers − and mostly older women who had worked for the organisation for many years and were considered to be good, reliable workers by their managers. But it got the absence figures down.