Dealing with long-term sickness absence or any form of absenteeism can be a challenge for management especially if it is not dealt with appropriately from the beginning.
Research undertaken on behalf of CIPD’s annual absence management survey highlights long-term absence is most effectively handled when early interventions and actions are taken. The research suggests that the longer the period of absenteeism is between employer interventions the less likely the employee is to return to work.
When managing cases of long-term absence it is important to bear in mind that the primary aim must be to help the employees return to work. Nevertheless it is also important to remember that in some extreme cases this may not always be feasible, and ultimately the nature of the absenteeism means the individual may be unable to return to the workplace.
When looking at long-term absenteeism there are generally two types of scenarios:
1. The first can involve an injury such as a broken leg or a routine operation for which there is a fairly accurate prognosis .i.e. they will be off for 6 weeks plus following this they will return.
In such situations there is little you can do as an employer to reduce the effect on the business apart from monitoring the general sickness absenteeism of the employee.
2. The second can be a little more complex i.e. if the employee is suffering from a mental health issue or a serious physical medical condition, establishing a return to work date for this kind of absenteeism can be more difficult.
However, in all cases of long-term absenteeism we would always encourage that steps are taken as early as possible to explore the nature and cause of the absence, and identify what practical support you can provide to assist the individuals return to work.
You may find it beneficial to consider the below points:
o No- what steps have you taken to investigate this and obtain a clearer prognosis?
o Yes – are there any practical adjustments you can make to help speed up the employee’s return to work?
– Have you established what support and contact is necessary during their absenteeism?
– Have you considered any necessary support the employee may require following a return to work?
– Is the prognosis poor or is there no expected return date for their absenteeism.
Handling cases of long term absenteeism is a delicate manner and the absence of any employee can put additional strain on the business and disrupt colleagues especially when a return date isn’t easily established. In such situations as these we would suggest you:
1. Assess whether your employees can manage throughout the absenteeism without a replacement, or whether you will need to hire a temporary replacement.
2. Keep in regular contact with the absent employee. Communication is a key factor in facilitating any possible return to work.
3. Consider whether it’s necessary to allow the employee time to get better, though we would always encourage that lines of communication remain open and that regular updates on any progress or changes are omitted.
4. Think whether you need to ask the employee for permission to contact their GP, or consider a referral for an occupational health assessment to assess:
o What is the diagnosis?
o When a return to work will be possible?
o If there will be a full recovery and whether a return to the same role is advisable.
o Whether any adjustments can be made to aid the return to work.
o Whether a return to a lighter, less stressful role would be necessary.
o Would the employee be considered disabled?
As a general rule of thumb we would stress the importance of protecting the health and wellbeing of your employees. Making use of occupational health within the workplace can take meaningful strides to ensuring this. According to the CIPD, adopting an occupational health professional is regarded as the most effective way to managing all forms of absenteeism.
Occupational health specialists can help to put in place bespoke treatment strategies and recommend appropriate adjustments to work to help employees remain in work and/or return at the earliest point of convenience.
Occupational health can often be more effective than a GP report as they are often better at assessing the impact of the employee’s health on work and vice versa. However, burying your head in the sand is not advisable and can create unnecessary complications. Early interventions and taking action from the beginning is the best course of action.
In some cases a return to work may be not achievable and in these situations it is important to demonstrate that, as well as establishing a potentially fair reason for dismissal all reasonable and fair adjustments are made to try to facilitate a return to work. This is achieve through evidenced communication with the employee through the duration of the absence, seeking appropriate medical advice and reviewing all reasonable adjustment options for alternative employment options and consulting.
You must not work under the misconception that you should just leave an employee off sick indefinitely.