Unsatisfactory Levels of Absence

How to Deal Effectively with Unsatisfactory Levels of Absence

Unsatisfactory levels of absence cause the biggest disruption to owners of small businesses due to the unpredictability and lack of notice. Where an individual’s levels of absence have reached unsatisfactory proportions, further investigations will be required to see if a particular pattern can be identified e.g. school holidays, regular Mondays, days when their football team are playing etc. The discussions relating to concerns about absence should be separate from the Return to Work meeting.

What is Frequent Short Term Absence?

This page was first published on 2 July 2012. The last update was on 9 January 2022.

As a guide, frequent short term self-certified absence exceeding 8 days in a rolling 12-month period should be used as a trigger for regarding absence levels as unsatisfactory.

Return to Work Follow Up Meeting

Individuals whose levels of absence fall into the unsatisfactory absence bracket should move to a programme of formal follow up meetings. The individual should first attend an informal return to work meeting on their first day back to work. They should then be invited to a follow up meeting where more details about the frequency of absences is discussed.

The purpose of the follow up meeting is to explore the reasons for poor attendance and decide whether any further action is necessary, including close monitoring under an attendance improvement notice.

The Human Rights Act provides that an individual has a right to respect for their private life. The line between proper and responsible management and unwarranted intrusions is a narrow one. You should therefore take care to avoid insensitive and unnecessary questions and be aware that heavy handed and intrusive questioning could result in a complaint under the Human Rights Act. Individuals should not be forced to answer questions relating to their health and private life, simply given the opportunity to do so.

Identifying a Pattern of Absence

Some patters of absence are easy to spot, for instance regular Mondays or Fridays, the days immediately before or after a bank holiday weekend. Others are harder to spot, individuals may take time off to occasionally so they can travel to an away football match. I had one woman who took a few days or a few week off most months, when I investigated I found out her husband worked shifts and when he was nights, she didn’t see him, we adjusted her working schedule so she worked more hours in the week he was on the early shift, and less hours when he was on the late and night shift.

An good way to identify a pattern is to create a grid of squares representing a month at a time. Each column will be Monday to Sunday. Colour the squares that the employee calls in sick, use a different colour to identify non-working days and a third colour for holiday days. This provides a visual chart that you can also use to highlight the numerous absences in your discussions with the employee.

Formal Review Meetings

When taking an individual forward to a formal process you would also be justified in asking the employee for permission to approach their doctor for a report. It is important that this is done in compliance with the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988. The Access to Health Records Act 1990 enables an individual to obtain a copy of their own health record, which they could then pass on to you.

The main purpose of the formal review meeting is to discuss ways to improve attendance and consider whether close monitoring or other formal action is necessary.

Meeting Agenda


  • Explain why you are having the meeting;
  • Include reasons why are concerned;
  • Refer to the absence or series of absences that have given rise to the concerns;
  • Ask if there is any reason why they have been having so much time off; and
  • Listen to what the person says.


  • Ask about the recent spell of sickness, what was wrong, did they see a doctor, if not is it something they should consider?
  • Sometimes an underlying disability or health problem may be revealed when a person does eventually go to a doctor;
  • Has the doctor given any advice about keeping well? and
  • Consider whether you need to refer the individual for medical advice.


  • What is the workload like? Are they coping with it?
  • Is there anything they dislike about the job? Is it causing any problems?
  • Have they had adequate training?
  • How do they get along with their colleagues?
  • Are there any relationship issues?


  • Ask whether there are any domestic difficulties; use your own knowledge of the person their situation. Make sure you phrase the question(s) in a way that will be acceptable to them.


  • Identify any new issues that have been raised and how they will be dealt with;
  • Summarise the issues covered and the responses;
  • If appropriate indicate that the situation will be monitored more closely in the future; and
  • Identify and agree action points.


Agree any further action that is to be taken, this could include:

  • Offer help if it is needed;
  • Medical referral;
  • Change of working pattern;
  • An attendance improvement plan and close monitoring.

Ensure the employee is clear about what happens next.

The formal meetings should continue until you are satisfied that the absence levels have reduced to a satisfactory level.


Keep a note of the meeting in your management notes and give a copy to the employee.

Top Tips

Frequent absence of this nature may indicate general ill health requiring medical investigation, and if continued may indicate work related stress caused by lack of capability to do the job. Individuals in this situation should be encouraged to seek proper medical attention to establish any underlying health problem. It may also be useful to discuss whether there are domestic difficulties with the job.

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The Managing Unsatisfactory Absence folder contains guidance and resources to help you manage employees whose absence levels are preventing them from providing regular and efficient service. I provide a How To Guide and Flow Chart, a Checklist to help you prepare for a Formal Return to Work Meeting and a series of warning letters, including dismissal.

Unsatisfactory Levels of Absence