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I’ve had a few situations where an employee is absent all the time. Then, when the manager steps up to deal with it, the employee cries ‘work-stress’. Read this scenario and find out what to do.


We have an employee who has been consistently absent, usually on a Monday. He has had 2 written warnings so far. He’s been with us for over 2 years.

2 weeks ago he did it again, knowing what was coming, he went to the doctors and managed to get a sick note for “work related stress”.

He came back to work today, but is this work-related stress diagnosis really a get out of jail free card?

If he can just use this as an excuse every time he takes time off, is there anything we can do about it or are we just stuck with it?

I’d be grateful for any advice

HRLADY's profession (non-legal) advice

I feel your pain!

Monday-itis is a serious disease, and despite extensive research, no cure has yet been found.

But luckily there are things you can do to rid yourself of the problem.

You can have staff attending work on time, every day, as agreed. It’s takes some time and attention and skill. Mostly it’s about the consistency of your actions.

Firstly, many people, when they think an employer is onto them, start feeling stressed, and then run to the doctor for a ‘work-related stress’ diagnosis. Look, the stress may be real, but it’s unavoidable under the circumstances, so don’t let it scare you. Just deal with it:

As soon as the person returns to work, have a sit-down conversation about 2 issues. (Include witnesses or record the conversation if you’re not a prolific note taker)

  • Issue 1 is the fact that they were away from work again, unauthorised, and refer to the two warnings already given. Ask for the reason for the absence. Wait for the answer. Hit the pause button – Don’t immediately comment or give judgement. Just listen, because you will decide your response later, and then share it with the person. This conversation is an info gathering exercise to inform your next steps.

  • Issue 2 is the fact that he says he’s stressed because of work. To answer your question, no, it’s not a ‘get out of jail free card’. Ask him what (exactly) is causing the stress (I know you think this is self-explanatory, and that you’ve made up your mind about what’s going on here – he’s just playing games, but again… just hit the pause button and hear him out). Many people cannot explain why they are stressed. They just keep using the word like a shield. Your job is to get behind the shield and find out if there is real stress in the workplace, or if they are just hiding behind a scary word. People know employers are fearful of that word, and often back off. Don’t back off, delve into the topic, and find out more information. Stress is common, and we all experience it. It is distress we want to avoid! So check for it.

Now you know what’s really going on…or you know more than you did before. Whatever information you’ve gathered will help you decide to take the next step.

If the person seems to have taken unauthorised leave, and just used the ‘work-related stress’ as a shield, then set up a formal meeting, and put the 2 issues to him again, in a formal setting, with the option to dismiss with notice.

If there is a genuine issue in the workplace causing stress – like bullying, you will need to investigate that first, before taking steps on the absenteeism, because it is a common cause for absenteeism.

Nothing stops you from laying out the rules about work attendance and dealing to it again, if it happens again.

If he keeps bringing in medical certificates, and stays of work, your other option is to commence an incapacity process, where you may terminate because he’s not able to do his job due to illness

So many options….

The key is to work through all the excuses until the person either starts attending work regularly, or is terminated, because they continued their poor attendance.

Dealing with absenteeism and incapacity cases can be extremely frustrating for employers.

Especially when they’ve had to put up with it for so long! That can build resentment, and then it’s best to get an independent person to deal with the employee. You don’t want to explode in this situation and say the wrong things!

The other reason for getting in help: both processes are tricky, and have legal risk for employers, especially the incapacity situation and /or bullying investigations. Rather get advice before you start dealing with it on your own.

PS: devise an internal process for dealing with absences. Make sure it includes an interview with EVERY employee who is away from work regularly, due to illness or other issues, and especially anyone staying away unauthorised. The word will get around that you are serious about having reliable staff who attend work when they say they would, and you deal with those who don’t.

End result – You can have staff attending work on time, every day, as agreed.

If you want relief from a frustrating case of Monday-itis, ask for help. It can be hard to maintain your pose, so rather introduce some independence into the process.

With a small organisation and no HR in house, we rely on our managers to have some HR experience. But, when things get tougher or approaches take a legal position, the managers can be at the edge of their knowledge and experience. Melony was professional and dispassionate, and helped keep a clear and factual yet understanding approach. I'm glad we have made the connection, and it's great to know help is just a phone call away.
David, CEO
22 Employees

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