Absence surveys indicate that absences of 8 days or more account for approximately 1/3 of total absence. There is no definitive guide on what makes an absence long term but it’s generally considered as an absence of four weeks or more. These account for approximately 1/5 of total absence. Given the instances of long term absence, it’s important that you have a strategy both for managing the long term sickness and the return to work.
The majority of employees have genuine reasons for being off sick and especially where long term absence is concerned, they will need support during their recovery and return to work.
There are four typical elements in the process of the employee’s recovery and getting back to work:
- Keeping in touch
- Planning workplace adjustments or controls
- Taking professional advice where appropriate (Occupational Health)
- Planning and co-ordinating a return to work plan which may involve a phased return.
1. Keeping in touch
From time to time, the nature of an employee’s illness or reason for absence means that frequent contact from the employer may be inappropriate, e.g. if the employee is absent through work-related stress. In those circumstances, you should reach agreement on the frequency of your contact and if possible, arrange an alternative contact such as your employee’s spouse or a close friend.
There are some key points to note in relation to keeping in touch with an absent employee:
- Make regular contact via phone or email, both to enquire after the employee’s health but also to keep them informed about what’s happening at work
- Make it clear that the employee should not rush to get back to work
- Reassure him/her that the company will support them to get back to work
2. Planning workplace adjustments
In order to accommodate an employee coming back to work, it may be necessary to consider some adjustments to the workplace. The important thing to remember is that proposed adjustments should be reasonable. If they are unreasonable and would adversely affect your business then you are not required to implement the changes.
What adjustments are considered reasonable will depend on the individual circumstances and may be decided between the company and the employee or may be based on recommendations from a GP or other medical professional. They may include:
- Temporary or permanent changes to working hours/days (e.g. a phased return);
- Temporary or permanent changes to the working environment;
- Adjustments to working equipment;
- Adjustments to tasks or duties;
- Providing additional equipment, fittings, furniture etc.
Note that you are not obliged to make any adjustments but when making your decision, you should consider:
- The financial cost of making the change;
- The effect on other staff if the person remains absent;
- The effect on customers;
- The benefit to the business if the employee can return to work more quickly.
If no reasonable adjustments are recommended or they cannot be accommodated, it may be the case that capability procedures have to be considered which could ultimately result in the employee being dismissed for not being capable of carrying out the job they were employed to do.
3. Taking professional advice
What happens if you don’t know what adjustments you should be making? The return to work plan will always depend on what tasks the employee is capable of doing. It is essential to know the proposed timescale of any adjustments – are they temporary changes or permanent ones? When faced with these questions, you may need to take professional advice which typically may involve writing to the employee’s GP or Consultant or requesting an appointment for the employee to visit the Occupational Health department at your local hospital.
4. Putting together the return to work plan
Keeping in touch with your employee and taking professional advice should give you the full picture on the best way forward with a return to work plan. Often, that can include a phased return over an agreed number of weeks. The exact plan decided upon will be up for discussion but once the plan has been agreed, it is essential that everyone sticks to it.
The management of employees who become disabled as a result of sickness may mean you as their employer have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ as dictated by the disability discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2010 before they can return to their job. You should be aware that conditions such as stress might be covered under this legislation, especially since stress-related absence is on the increase.
The types of adjustments that you might be required to consider include:
- making physical adjustments to the workplace environment
- allocating some of the disabled person’s duties to another person
- transferring the disabled person to another vacant post with or without reasonable adjustments being made
- altering the disabled person’s working hours through, for example, part-time working, job sharing or other flexible hours arrangements
- providing special equipment to assist the disabled person to perform his or her tasks and giving training in the use of the equipment.
Supporting a return to work
Supporting an employee back to work is all about good people management skills, effective communication, sensitivity and understanding. The support should not stop immediately after the employee returns – a long term absence often needs long term support.