== Do you have a ’sick note’ on your team? ==

Every football supporter knows of the stars nicknamed ’sick note’. These are the guys who seem to spend at least half a season in the physio’s room. These are the ones who come back from a long injury lay-off and play barely 90 minutes before signalling to ’the gaffer’ that they need to be taken off with a new injury. The ones who always seem to carry some mysterious muscle strain that the medics can’t quite identify and cure. The ones who seemingly develop a ’virus’ on the morning before a game. But while the absences of highly-paid footballers may attract widespread attention - and derision - back in the real world, workplace absence in any year typically averages 8.1 days per employee at a cost of £850 to the employer.

Multiply this figure by your number of staff, and take into account the disruption and lost work caused by other employees having to cover for absent colleagues, and you can see that absenteeism can be a significant factor in damaging your profits.

Is there anything you can do? Yes there is. Here are some simple steps that you could try:

? Track the problem - can you identify any particular problem areas? Are there patterns of absence? (For example, does your night cashier report sick every time his team happen to be playing an evening game at home?) Does a particular department or employee have a below-average record?

? Focus on morale - unhappy staff are more likely to take time off. A financial incentive for low absence is one solution, but creating a friendly environment, where staff feel valued as part of a team and where family-friendly policies are in place, is likely to prove more effective at keeping absenteeism to a minimum.

? Support sick employees - long-term sickness should always be handled sensitively. An employee’s permission must be sought and given before applying for a medical report. Establish whether you should keep in touch so that the employee doesn’t feel isolated. Consider referring them to an occupational health specialist. This can identify ways of helping them return to work and give you an indication of how long the absence is likely to last.

? Have a clear policy - and enforce it. Make sure staff are well informed about sickness policy and procedures and that these are seen to be followed. Keep accurate records. It is sensible to ensure that employees are aware of the employer’s right to request an independent medical assessment in the event of an employee taking a substantial number of days off work. When recruiting, you could check a potential employee’s attendance record with their previous employer, and you could also consider requiring all prospective staff to undergo a medical examination.

? Make it company policy always to carry out a return-to-work interview. This may just let the employee know that their contribution was missed, or it could help identify underlying problems that will affect your management strategy. It may also deter staff from feigning illness.

Always remember that disciplinary action for unacceptable absence must be distinguished from capability procedures related to illness. Employers need to be aware of the full range of conditions that come under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. In this case, reasonable adjustments must be made to help the employee return to work.

Employee absence is a serious issue for most small businesses, but there are steps you can take to minimise its impact. However, we recommend that you take professional advice before altering contracts or terms and conditions of employment.

== Timetable for tax refund claims is changing ==

It seems that HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) just can’t stop making changes to how the tax system is administered. The latest is a change to dates for claiming back overpaid tax.

While many self-assessment taxpayers make a claim in the year in which their returns were submitted, some people can claim tax that stretches back into earlier years. Anyone wishing to do this, however, may need to file their claims sooner than anticipated as the time limit for filing claims is being reduced from six to four years. So self-assessment taxpayers who have a claim for the year 2003/04 must submit their claim by January 31, 2010.

And self-assessment taxpayers who have a claim for the year 2004/05 must submit the claim by March 31, 2010. While those who have a claim for the year 2005/06 must file by April 5, 2010.

== Doom averted - or is it just postponed? ==

This year we’ve all been told by the media that ’swine flu’ would do immense damage to businesses, if not actually ending civilisation as we know it! Well, so far the media scare appears to have been just another in the long run of panic stories. According to a recent poll of 750 businesses carried out by the Institute of Directors, 85% reported that business operations have not been significantly disrupted by the virus outbreak.

Most of the firms questioned said that they had issued guidance notes on how their business should deal with a flu pandemic. Some however, expressed disappointment that a small number of employees have been taking advantage of the guidance provided by the NHS - which basically seems to encourage everyone feeling a bit under the weather to take a week off and stay in bed. The media doomsters have now moved on to warn us that the outbreak may come back in a much more lethal form in the autumn (ie any time from now onwards) so following on from our first topic, just keep a record of how many times any one of your ’sick note’ employees calls in with ’flu’ this year!