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Managing planned absences

27 June 2011

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Employment Law Adviser
Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland

Janice is an HR and employment law adviser with the MDDUS, a medical defence organisation providing access to indemnity and expert medicolegal advice for doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals throughout the UK. Janice graduated with a human resources management degree from Stirling University before working in business-facing HR roles with the Royal Bank of Scotland and Royal Dutch Shell Group

Planned absence is, as the name suggests, when an employee is absent from the workplace due to a pre-agreed reason authorised by their manager. Some examples may be annual leave, hospital treatment, antenatal care, parental, paternity and maternity leave, adoption leave, leave for public duties, accompanying an employee to a flexible work or disciplinary meeting, or for job hunting while faced with redundancy.

Not all planned absence will necessarily be paid and you should ensure that your policies and procedures are explicit about this for each type of leave. There is legislation in this area that you should be aware of – for example, annual leave should be paid as should antenatal care, but parental leave is usually unpaid.

Ensure that your procedures have a process whereby the employee has to give sufficient notice, obtain written authorisation and perhaps even agree who should be their back-up so employees are also taking responsibility for ensuring there is adequate cover. Specific examples of planned leave include:

Time off for public duties
Employees are allowed time off work for public duties, such as magistrate or justice of the peace duties, local counsellor or being a member of a school board. Notice has to be reasonable, does not necessarily have to be paid and how often they have been off previously with this activity can be taken into account.

Trade union duties
If you are a member of a trade union, you are entitled to reasonable time off for trade union duties and activities.

Jury service
Employers must allow time off for jury service and employee’s salaries and expenses can be claimed back by the employee from the court.

Career breaks
Career breaks can last from three months up to five years, are usually unpaid and can be requested for a variety of reasons. Again, these are not compulsory and must be agreed with both parties and suit the needs of the practice.

What can you do to proactively manage planned absence?
Some practices ensure that they cross-train their staff in different roles so that there is more cover for staff when they are not in the office. So, as an example, administration staff can be trained to cover the receptionist’s role and therefore step in during periods of shortage. Most employees would relish the opportunity to obtain more skills and have more variety in their roles, and you may wish to add in this flexibility into employees’ employment contracts.

It may be an option to employ temporary members of staff over busy periods such as the summer, to cover annual leave. A fixed-term employee does have similar rights to a permanent member of staff but the employment will last for a specific time only. After two years, be aware they have rights to redundancy, and, after four years, the right to be treated as a permanent member of staff.

A practice can also engage the services of agency staff but, bear in mind, that as of 1 October 2011 they have the right to some basic employment rights and pay after 12 weeks of employment.

Some practices encourage work placements, which in turn give staff unpaid work for experience in working in a practice. As this is usually unpaid, there is no requirement to have a contract, but you should check your liability insurance to make sure they are covered.

Effective workforce planning should be given the space it deserves and the benefits of having the right amount of staff in the right place at the right time will speak for itself.