Interview: How To Build
A Watertight Nursery Sickness Policy
And stop staff taking advantage of it

It’s not easy to get your nursery sickness policy right. Sure, you don’t want staff coming in and spreading their illness when they’re genuinely sick, but if people start to take advantage of a lenient sickness policy, then the costs (and your stress) can easily start ratcheting up.

That’s why we’ve called in the experts. Sarah Hall now runs Engage HR consultants, having managed the human resources department for the 1500-staff strong Treetops nursery chain. She’s worked in nursery HR for nine years, and now uses that experience to consult with nurseries around the country.

We’ve also talked with Donna Fairbrother from The Nursery HR People, who provide easy online access to HR documentation and employee contracts. They also offer packages that come with an unlimited HR advice-line, and you can download a free copy of their recommended nursery sickness policy over on their website.

Let’s see what they have to say shall we?

Why does a policy matter?

The main reason for having a proper nursery sickness policy in place is nicely summed up in one word. Consistency.

“If you’re not being consistent with your policy, then you’re just creating an environment of confusion for your employees and for the people who have to manage these absences,” says Donna. To avoid that environment of confusion, making your nursery sickness policy clear to everyone is vital.

It’s about more than just the absences too. It’s about having a policy that covers how those absences are reported and dealt with. According to Sarah, that list includes things like:

  • How do staff report the absence?
  • When do they have to do it by?
  • How are you going to keep in touch during the absence?
  • How soon do they expect to be back?
  • How are they going to return to work?
  • How can you help you with that?
  • How much will you pay?
  • How long will you pay for?
  • What happens if it becomes a long-term absence?
  • What action might happen if they are taking too much absence over a certain period?

Once you’re happy with your nursery sickness policy, go through it carefully with staff to make sure they understand. “Use real-life examples, so that they understand how it could apply to them, and get them to sign to make sure that they have understood it,” Sarah explains, “and make sure you give them the opportunity to ask questions on anything they’re unsure about.”

Should I offer more than Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)?

Like all employers, you must offer (SSP) in most cases. The rules for SSP are:

    • Employers must pay £92.05 a week to those unable to work.
    • This applies after employees have been unable to work for 4 days in a row.
    • It must be paid for up to 28 weeks.
    • Employees must be eligible according to certain criteria.

    But when it comes to your business, should you be offering more than the bare minimum?

    “It has to be economically feasible of course, but from a benefits point of view you’re going to attract good calibre employees who are going to want to stay with you,” says Donna. “You’re going to be an employer of choice,” she adds.

    The truth is that SSP is unlikely to cover anybody’s rent – let alone their food bill – and so you’re often encouraging staff to come into work when they shouldn’t be, increasing the chance of spreading the illness.

    “Staff who work in nurseries do get sick from children passing on all sorts of germs that they wouldn’t have got elsewhere,” Sarah points out. “So there is a debate to say that the employer should be supporting those employees to make sure they don’t spread that sickness and to help them get better without worrying about paying the bills.”

    So whether you’re offering half pay or full pay for a number of days when your staff are sick, there are clear benefits and moral justification for offering a more full nursery sickness policy. But, as with anything, it’s never that simple…

How do I stop staff abusing my nursery sickness policy?

“The other side of the debate is the concern about the abuse of the system, that people might take it whether they need it or not,” says Sarah. So how do you balance offering a policy that is clearly a benefit, while preventing certain staff from taking you for a ride?

1. Triggers and the Bradford factor

One of the most common ways of preventing abuse of a nursery sickness policy is to introduce trigger points.

“If you have a certain number of absences in a certain amount of time, then you start an investigation that could result in disciplinary action being taken when that trigger point is hit,” Sarah explains.

One of the most popular ways of doing this is using something called the Bradford Factor. It’s a simple formula, that you calculate over a rolling 12 month period. You begin by multiplying the number of instances of absence by itself, and then multiply that by the total number of days used across the absences. There’s even a helpful calculator so you don’t need to do the maths yourself.

After that, you set a number that works as a trigger point to start investigating the absence. Sarah recommends around 100 points. “It just provides a consistent method for treating absence, and treating everyone fairly,” she says. “But regular trigger systems are often just as good, it’s just important that you are offering consistency.”

Find a formula that works for you, and stick to it. And if you do feel that there might be something amiss, you move onto the next step…

2. Taking steps for disciplinary action

“You do have the option to terminate a member of staff’s employment if that absence pattern continues and there are no relevant mitigating circumstances,” Sarah points out.

You obviously need to be reasonable and consider things like disability to avoid discrimination. You cannot simply fire someone off the back of one absence either.

Communication here is key. “Don’t be shy of having those conversations about disciplinary processes with people,” says Donna. “Because if they don’t understand the process, then the fallout will be a lot worse if you do have to start going down that road.”

In short, it’s always better to see what’s coming when there’s still time to do something about it.

3. Common sense prevails

Rules, triggers and formulas aren’t the be all and end all though. “As with anything in HR, it’s all about using common sense as well,” says Donna.

“There are real, genuine reasons why people are absent from work, and you have to accept that as part of the working environment,” she continues. “So it might be harsh to pick someone up on a fourth absence, for example, if you know for sure that bugs were going round on each of those occasions. In that situation, common sense needs to prevail.

Trigger policies are good to fall back on when you need to justify your actions, but they can’t be fast rules. “You don’t want to unfairly reprimand people for something that is out of their control,” Donna finishes.

How can I improve my nursery sickness policy?

So now that you’ve got some ideas on how to deal with the more delicate matter of staff who might be abusing your nursery sickness policy, it’s time to turn to some top advice on what to include in the first place.

Here are some recommendations from our two experts.

1. Get them on the phone

Both our experts think that it must be a phone call to report the absence in the first place. “It must be to their line manager, and it must be over the phone,” Sarah explains, “they should also do it themselves unless they physically can’t.”

But why? “You need to be fully briefed on what the absence is for and when you’re likely to be back to work,” Donna says. “That helps you to plan. Text messages do not give you a full idea of the actual root cause of the problem and you can have an open conversation about how you can help and support them.”

2. Set a time restriction

Another important thing to include in your policy is to set a time they need to call you by.

“It needs to be early in the morning so that the management team can put provisions in place to make up for that person’s absence,” Donna recommends.

“Generally in nurseries, because they’re open from around 7:30, it’s really useful that a manager knows by at least 7:00, so that they have time to try and cover the shift.” Ratios can make sickness policy in the early years even more difficult, and it’s important that staff know you need as much warning as possible.

3. Stay in touch

Setting the expectation that employees need to stay in touch when they can is also helpful for your future planning.

“You need to be in regular contact, so if it’s likely to be more than one day, still have a daily check-in just to see how things are,” says Donna.

This isn’t just about planning, but about helping to show that you’re there for your employees. “I know that some employers get a bit reluctant about that because they think they’re intruding too much and they don’t want to be contacted. But actually, it shows you’re being more supportive by having that regular contact.”

4. Sort out your paperwork

As well as sorting out your official policy, it’s also important to have the right paperwork in place. Donna recommends:

  • A Self-Certification Form – For the employee to fill in if the absence is less than seven days. This confirms that they certify they’re ready to return to work.
  • Fit NotesNeeded after seven days of continuous absence, this note from the GP includes the reason and duration of absence along with whether the employee’s ready to return or not. Make sure to keep it on the employee’s HR file.
  • GP Consent Form – For long-term absences, you can ask an employee’s permission to ask for a report from their GP. Having a form for them to sign can be helpful to smooth the process.
5. Get your backup in place

Ratio requirements definitely make nursery sickness policy a bit more messy. But having options can improve things a bit.

“I’ve always worked with bank staff, colleagues employed on zero-hours contracts who can be called in whenever you need them,” says Sarah. These are particularly useful in emergency cases, and you need a few who you can rely on so that if one or two aren’t available you’ve got enough options.

“The advantage of being part of a larger group is that you can have people across a certain area because they have that flexibility to move around,” says Sarah. But what about smaller providers?

“I’ve seen people trying to get single setting providers to try and club together to get this flexibility, and sadly there hasn’t been much uptake,” says Sarah. “It’s a shame because if done correctly it could be a really great situation for single settings. Being forced to put managers in ratio or going to an agency isn’t ideal and costs an absolute fortune.”

6. Manage the return to work

When your staff are ready to come back, managing their return is absolutely essential.

“A must-do part of the process is a back-to-work meeting, however long the absence is,” says Donna. “It’s a chance to fill out paperwork, but most importantly you can get a real understanding of how they are, if they need any support or adjustments, and whether there are any underlying issues that are impacting on them.”

What’s more, it’s a chance to discuss how they dealt with reporting the absence, and if there are ways they could do any better. If they weren’t perfect, then it’s time to reiterate the importance of those things and make sure they do it the right way in the future.

7. Dealing with longer absences

According to SSP, you’re no longer culpable for absences over 28 weeks.

“The truth is, not all employers can afford to pay sick leave in instances of long-term sickness or injury,” Sarah points out.

“Getting that person back to work as soon as possible is the main objective but you also have to appreciate that the reasons for that absence could be quite significant,” Donna adds.

“That’s where this constant contact is crucial, so that you can understand the nature of their illness or incapacity and their future prognosis. You need to get the employee’s views too on their continued employment, asking them ‘Do you feel like you are going to be able to return to work?’ Don’t be scared of having these conversations, because without them you’re not going to be able to help each other move forward.”

When they are ready to come back, a phased return to work is crucial. Start with half days, or maybe one or two full days a week, to give them time to adjust back to the workplace. “It enables them to adjust back to the workplace and reduce that feeling of being overwhelmed,” Donna suggests.

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