Tips for tackling long-term sickness absence

Dealing appropriately with employees on long-term sickness absence from the outset can help achieve an earlier return to work. Where a return is ultimately not possible, it will reduce the prospect of a dispute escalating. Are your managers confident in dealing with your absent employees? These are our top three tips for tackling long-term sickness absence:

Follow your policy

Make sure you have a clear absence management policy in place and ensure it is properly understood and applied in practice by your managers.

A policy should set out the rights and responsibilities of the employee and the expectations of the employer in the event that an individual has to take time off. Entitlement to sick pay and any qualifying conditions for the payment of sick pay should be included.

Liz Stevens, professional support lawyer, Birketts LLP

The policy should explain the reporting process and specify when a doctor’s certificate (Statement of Fitness for Work, or ‘fit note’) is required and to whom it should be provided. It should also set out the circumstances when an occupational health or independent medical report might be sought.

Absence management policies will often provide for ‘trigger’ points at which a formal process will be commenced, including meetings with an employee to review their absence and to consider future steps. If an absence is related to a long-term condition, it is highly likely that the individual will be protected by the disability provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and therefore entitled to reasonable adjustments that will alleviate any obstacles to a return to work. The possibility that an employee on long-term sick leave is likely to be disabled should always be a factor to consider when following a formal absence management procedure.

A good policy will retain an element of flexibility and discretion for the employer, but those responsible for implementing the policy need to understand how to exercise discretion fairly and appropriately. Consider providing training to your managers in dealing with sickness absence and in applying the absence management policy, particularly with regard to those who are new to management positions.

Keep in contact with the employee

It is important to keep in regular contact with an employee on long-term sick leave, to update them with any news and developments at work and ensuring they do not feel isolated or forgotten about, which might make it harder for them to contemplate a return to the workplace.

The appropriate method and frequency of contact (and the most appropriate person) will depend partly on the reason for the absence. Any such contact should not express judgment of or pressurise the employee, but should instead offer support and seek to ascertain whether there are any adjustments that might assist the employee to return. Make sure someone is tasked with ensuring contact is maintained with the employee, whether by their own manager or by a member of the HR team.

Particular care should be exercised in cases where the individual is absent for a condition caused by work-related stress, where frequent contact could be viewed by the individual as overbearing, and might risk exacerbating their condition. Seek to establish with the employee what their preferred method of communication is, and set appropriate parameters for contact at an early stage. Keep a record of all communications, including a brief file note of any telephone conversations.

Don’t forget that employees absent on long-term sick leave are entitled to be consulted over potential redundancies and restructures. Be prepared to be flexible over the timing and location of any meetings held with the individual.

Keep up to date with the medical position

An individual should supply a current doctor’s certificate to cover their period of absence in full, but the onus is on the employer to monitor this and to keep fully up to date with the employee’s current medical condition. Be proactive. Check any doctor’s advice on the Statement of Fitness for Work to see if there is any prospect of a return, and whether any adaptations to the role or the workplace have been identified. These should be discussed with the employee.

Doctors’ certificates are (generally) notoriously unhelpful for employers, since a doctor’s duty of care is towards the individual patient. It is therefore usually necessary in cases of long-term absence to seek further clarification of the medical position and the future prognosis by requesting an occupational health or doctor’s report. Careful thought should be given to the appropriate questions to ask the medical professional, including questions specific to the employee’s role and what adjustments might be necessary to facilitate the employee’s return. It is particularly important to make sure that this information is revisited and fully up to date with the latest medical position before any decision is reached about the individual’s future employment.

Birketts is running a series of Early Birds breakfast seminars at a range of locations throughout June at which it will be looking at the issue of long-term sickness absence. It will focus particularly on the additional duties to and adjustments for disabled employees.

Employment Solicitor


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