What can you do about long-term sickness?

Sometimes an employee is out of action for a while, you need to be prepared

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Wednesday, Mar 13, 2024

Long-term sickness is one of the most difficult kinds of absence to manage, especially for smaller organisations with smaller teams and less-flexible finances.

Through good management you can reduce long-term sickness absence, support sick employees to return, and ensure fair treatment of your staff. Here’s how.

Causes of long-term sickness absence

Recent research data shows the most common reasons given for long-term sickness absence are:

  • Acute medical conditions, such as cancer or heart problems
  • Stress
  • Musculo-skeletal injuries
  • Mental ill-health
  • Back pain

Many organisations are also reporting illegitimate absence as a common reason for long-term absence (CIPD 2015).

Creating a formal policy on long-term sickness

Having a written policy on absence management demonstrates to employees that you take absence seriously. It also communicates rules to both line managers and staff, and helps ensure all employees are treated equally and fairly.

You can include measures specifically for dealing with long-term sickness absence. Popular methods include:

  • Occupational health involvement — OH professionals can assess the employee’s condition and estimate a return date, make recommendations for a successful return, and encourage safe working practices generally. If OH isn’t available, you can ask the employee for permission to contact their GP.
  • Risk assessments — By identifying and reducing workplace risks that may have contributed to the absence, you can reduce the chance of them recurring.
  • Return-to-work interviews — See below.

Your policy should also make clear your arrangements for long-term sickness pay.

Assessing and managing sickness and absence

Your absence policy, particularly OH involvement, can help you assess the duration and seriousness of the sickness absence. It’s important to decide:

  • Will you need cover for the sick employee?
  • Will a full return to work be possible, or will the employee need an adjusted role?
  • Are you required under the Employment Act 2010 to make a reasonable adjustment?
  • Would a phased return help the employee back to work sooner?

You should answer these questions as quickly as possible so you can take appropriate action.

Staying in touch

Employees on long-term sickness absence can feel disconnected from their job and your organisation. It’s a good idea to keep in touch throughout the absence.

Keeping in touch helps you keep up to date with changes to the employee’s condition and return date. You can also keep the employee informed about changes to the workplace and their job.

Supporting the employee’s return to work

When the employee is ready to return, you should carry out a return-to-work interview to:

  • Welcome the employee back
  • Plan a phased return with shorter hours if necessary
  • Bring the employee up to date with workplace changes
  • Schedule training required to bring the employee up to date with changes to their job
  • Discuss any workplace adjustments needed to support the employee’s return

Dismissing long-term sick employees

If you have exhausted every option to facilitate a return to work for the employee, you may have to consider dismissal. It’s essential that your decision to dismiss is fair, because you may need to prove it to an employment tribunal. Make sure you’ve offered to make reasonable adjustments first.

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