Luke Watkeys, Business Manager
For all these reasons and more, managers need to manage long-term absence properly, but it is something that few relish. As such, we have pored over and compiled a list of the four most effective approaches in managing long-term sickness.
All too often when an employee goes off on long term sickness managers can be afraid to contact them. However, maintaining contact with the employee during their sickness absence is generally both welcomed by the employee and associated with a range of positive return-to-work outcomes.
Being off sick for a prolonged period of time can be an incredibly isolating experience, so early and regular contact (including a cheesy get-well card) may relieve some of an employee’s anxiety regarding their return. In cases where it is alleged that the manager has contributed in some way to the employee’s health condition (for example due to work-related stress), consider whether someone else can take responsibility for maintaining this contact with the absent employee.
2. Get professional medical advice
Signing up with a decent Occupational Health (OH) service is vital for an organisation, as without their advice and support you can’t hope to manage long-term sickness properly. As soon as you are then clear that an employee is off on long-term sick, make an OH referral.
A sound OH service can provide impartial advice to both managers and staff relating specifically to an employee’s ability to fulfil the requirements of the job both in the short-term and long-term. They can also assess whether an employee’s condition relates to a disability (common in long-term cases) and can advise you on reasonable adjustments that might be made to accommodate the effects of this.
3. Meet, plan, and undertake reasonable adjustments
Another invaluable benefit of OH is to assess whether an individual is fit to attend internal formal meetings. Once you’ve received the OH report from the above point along with confirmation (or otherwise) of their fitness to attend meetings, don’t wait until the employee has returned to meet and discuss their sickness. Not only could you be waiting a very long time, but it could put you in a position when you haven’t had sufficient time to plan for any necessary adjustments upon their return (e.g. amending their work pattern).
Invite them to a meeting (on neutral ground if necessary). In cases where meeting is not possible, offer the employee the option to make representations in writing and or to provide medical evidence/statements for consideration.
The purpose of any long-term sickness review meeting should be:
To review the absence so far and to ascertain and to confirm the reasons for absence.
To consult with the employee and to ascertain from them the likelihood of their returning to work in the near future.
To consider any reasonable adjustments to assist the employee to return to work.
To set a reasonable date for review of the situation.
Getting an informed picture of the sickness means that reasonable adjustments can be planned, and a date for review can be set (usually the date that the employee expects to be well enough to return). Make sure that in any meeting the employees are properly consulted about their future and their views are given proper consideration.
4. Keep on top of it!
Once you’ve planned and undertaken any adjustments, the results of the discussion and any proposed action, including details of the expected review date, should be confirmed in writing.
Make sure that you have this date diarised and if the employee returns on or before the review date, hold a return to work meeting, confirming and planning any support needed to facilitate the employee’s return to work successfully.
On the other hand, if the employee’s absence continues past the review date, consider whether another OH report is necessary (as their illness may have worsened). This is where a robust sickness absence policy with defined stages comes in handy, so that you can ensure you sensitively and legally manage cases where despite support, an employee is unable to return.
And in the words of Jerry Springer/Jeremy Kyle/Insert chat-show host of your choice, our final thought. Long-term sickness can be an incredibly emotive and difficult process to manage. Make sure (above all else) that you view each case of long-term absence due to illness or injury sympathetically and take whatever reasonable steps are possible to assist an employee to return to work within a reasonable period.