How do I manage long term sickness?

For almost any employer, long term sickness is problematic. Depending on the size of the business, it can be a strain both physically through losing that individuals input into the company, but also financially.

One of the biggest problems employers have is that they don’t always know where they stand legally when it comes to long term sickness. Many employers are fearful of mismanaging the situation and getting things wrong resulting in losing the employee, and an expensive and time-consuming tribunal. They might have a sickness policy in place but have never had to use it, and so are unsure of how effective it is.

Managing long term sickness is a delicate matter and one that can take time. It is vital that that situation is dealt with patience, sensitivity and open communication from both parties. This will give the best chance of a resolution and your employee being able to return to work.

First steps When Dealing With Long Term Sickness

One of the first things you should do if you have an employee that is going to be off sick for the long term is assessing if their existing colleagues can cope with the additional workload. It may be that you need to find a temporary solution to support.

By ensuring this considered, it is less likely to result in your other employees feeling pressured and overworked, which could result in further sickness and absence.

Communication is Key

It is essential that you communicate with your employee regularly and at a frequency that is deemed reasonable.

If your employee is off for a severe illness or something like an operation, you may have a better understanding of the time frames that may be involved. Alternatively, your employee may be off sick for something else, and you may have concerns that they are drawing the process out.

Keeping in regular contact allows you to keep your employees updated about any changes in the business, for example, any new policies, updates or promotion opportunities. You must still include them when cascading this information.

A Medical Opinion

Depending on the situation, you could ask your employee if you have their permission to contact their GP, or if they would be willing to see a company doctor to assess:

  • Whether/when a return to work may be possible
  • Whether a return to the same role is advised
  • If the role needs to be adjusted in any way to be more suitable

Your Legal Obligations 

It is crucial that you follow a fair procedure when it comes to managing long term absences. Ultimately, the goal should always be to help your employee to return to work to their primary role.

Many employers believe that they are not able to dismiss an employee on the grounds of health. This is not true if you do proceed to a dismissal; however, you have to show that this was justified and fair, and you explored all the options available to you.

Under the Equality Act 2010, you will have to demonstrate that you have taken all appropriate steps to facilitate a return to work – including looking at alternative duties, hours and alternative roles where possible.

If an employee is dismissed on the grounds of health, an employment tribunal will look at the following:

  • Did you follow a fair procedure?
  • Did you have an adequate and suitable policy in place?
  • Did you keep in excellent communication with the employee throughout the absence?
  • Did you seek the employee’s permission to obtain a medical report?
  • What alterations or reasonable adjustments could be made to the role could be made and were these explored?
  • Was a flexible, partial or phased return to work offered?
  • Were any other jobs available and offered to the employee?
  • Was a risk assessment carried out on the role

If you can show that you explored the above options, and still no return to work in the foreseeable future can be determined, or suitable employment can be found, then termination on the grounds of ill health may result.

Getting Professional Support

Although sometimes unavoidable, employers should always seek to avoid this result where possible. Our advice is to seek professional HR advice to support you in his situation. By doing so you can ensure you are offering your employee the very best support possible to help them return to work. You also ensure you are protecting yourself as an employer and business by avoiding any costly employment tribunals.

If you’d like to have a discussion and ensure your sickness policies are suitable and would protect you and your employee should a situation as this arise, please do not hesitate to get in touch for a free no-obligation conversation about how Altum HR can support you.

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