Dealing with Long-Term Sickness Absence

Dealing with Long-Term Sickness Absence

Long-term sickness absence can be one of the most delicate aspects to manage in an employer-employee relationship.

For the employee, the focus is on recovery without the added stress of job security or mounting work responsibilities.

On the other hand, employers face the challenge of balancing compassionate support with the practicalities of maintaining business continuity. 

This delicate balance underscores the importance of both parties understanding their rights and responsibilities in such scenarios.

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What is a Long-Term Sickness Absence?

A long-term sickness absence occurs when an employee cannot work for an extended period due to health reasons. Generally, absences extending beyond four weeks fall into this category, although this can vary based on organisational policies. 

Long-term absences can arise from a range of causes, including chronic illnesses, mental health conditions, recovery from major surgeries, or ongoing medical treatments.

Recognising a long-term sickness absence involves understanding the severity of the employee’s health condition and its impact on their work capabilities. The nature of these absences demands a comprehensive approach, focusing on employee well-being and considering the duration and nature of their medical condition.

Short vs Long-Term Sickness Absence

The approach to managing short-term and long-term sickness absences differs significantly. Short-term absences, such as colds or sickness bugs, are generally less disruptive and can be handled with straightforward policies. 

Short-term absences can be measured using tools like the Bradford Factor, providing a quantitative perspective on the frequency and impact of these absences on the business.

Short-term sickness policies often aim to reduce the amount of sick days taken, focusing on immediate recovery and return to work.

Long-term sickness absences, however, require a more in-depth approach. 

Unlike short-term absences, these involve significant health challenges that affect the employee’s long-term capacity to work. Addressing long-term sick leave encompasses more than just monitoring days off. 

It requires a strategy that includes supportive measures during the absence and thoughtful planning for the employee’s return, possibly including modified duties, reduced hours, or workplace adjustments to accommodate their recovery.

For employers, navigating these situations involves a mix of empathy and practical management. The Holiday Tracker can be a valuable tool in this context. It promotes efficient tracking of long-term sickness absences, enabling employers to upload relevant notes and updates to employee profiles. This feature aids in maintaining an organised and informed approach to managing long-term sickness, aligning employee well-being with operational needs.

Navigating the legalities of long-term sickness absence is a critical aspect for employers. Under UK employment law, it’s imperative to establish fair and consistent absence policies. These policies should clearly outline the procedures for handling long-term sickness, aligning with legal standards and ensuring equal treatment for all employees.

2010 Equality Act

The Equality Act 2010 plays a significant role in protecting the rights of employees on long-term sick leave. This act provides a framework for employee protection, particularly for those whose absences may relate to conditions considered as disabilities. In such cases, employers must make reasonable adjustments to facilitate their employees’ eventual return.

The Employment Rights Act 1996

Another crucial piece of legislation is The Employment Rights Act 1996. This act outlines employees’ rights regarding unfair dismissal and redundancy, which become relevant if an employee’s long-term sick leave leads to potential dismissal considerations.

Employers must ensure any decision regarding an employee’s employment status due to long-term sickness is fair and in line with the provisions of this act.

Documentation of Sick Leave

Documenting all communications and actions concerning long-term sickness absence is also vital. This process involves maintaining detailed records of interactions with the employee, steps taken to manage their leave, and any adjustments or support provided. Employers should also ensure they obtain and keep fit notes or medical updates. 

This documentation is crucial in upholding transparency, evaluating the employee’s condition and in possible dispute-resolution scenarios.

Long-Term Sickness Pay

When it comes to pay during a long-term absence, employees may be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks.

Employees who are eligible for SSP:

  • Have a current employment contract with your company.
  • Earn more than £123 weekly.
  • Do not receive another form of pay.

Beyond SSP, employers should review their internal sick pay policies, which may offer further financial support. These policies should be transparent and consistently applied, ensuring fairness and clarity for all employees.

Additionally, employers should remain aware of any changes in SSP regulations or rates, as outlined on the UK Government’s SSP page, to stay compliant and keep their employees informed.

Communicating with an Employee on Long-Term Sick Leave

Effective communication is central to managing long-term sickness absence. Employers should aim for a consistent approach that is empathetic and respectful. It is essential to regularly check in with employees to understand their well-being and provide updates on relevant company developments. Handle these interactions sensitively, valuing the employee’s privacy and health status.

The role of HR in these processes is significant. HR departments can ensure appropriate conduct during conversations, maintain confidentiality, and promote a uniform approach to managing long-term sickness absences. 

Creating a supportive atmosphere where employees can comfortably discuss their health and its impact on work aids their recovery and smooth reintegration into the workplace. This approach fosters a workplace culture that values inclusivity and support.

Managing Long-Term Sickness Absence

Managing long-term sickness absence requires a comprehensive and compassionate approach, balancing employee well-being with business needs. Implementing a systematic, step-by-step process aids employers in handling these often complex situations effectively.

  1. Initial Response: Responding promptly and sensitively is the first step in managing long-term sickness absence. It involves acknowledging the leave and expressing concern for the employee’s well-being. This initial phase also includes gathering information about their condition and the expected duration of absence, which helps prepare for their potential return.
  1. Monitoring: Regular monitoring is essential. Maintain respectful communication with the employee, updating records of their sickness absence while adhering to privacy and medical confidentiality norms. Effective monitoring assists in understanding the progress of their condition and aids in planning for their eventual return or any necessary workplace adjustments.
  1. Ongoing Support: Offering support can include access to occupational health services, counselling, or other forms of assistance, depending on the employee’s condition. This support aids the employee’s recovery whilst demonstrating the employer’s commitment to their well-being. 
  1. Balancing Needs: It’s vital to balance the needs of the business with those of the employee. Be flexible and understanding towards the employee’s situation whilst considering the impact on the team and overall business operations.
  1. Return-to-Work Plan: Developing a structured return-to-work plan is crucial for a smooth reintegration into the workplace. This plan must be customised to fit the individual’s needs, potentially involving a phased return, flexible working arrangements, or necessary workplace adjustments.

When managing a long-term sickness absence, employers must remember that the main goal is to support the employee. Ensure fairness in all actions and create a helping environment for their return to work. This balanced approach is critical for maintaining a positive and productive workplace, demonstrating the employer’s commitment to employee welfare and business integrity.

Creating a Supportive Environment for Return

Preparing the workplace for an employee’s return after a long-term sickness is vital for a successful reintegration. This preparation can include:

  • Staff Briefings: Staff briefings can inform and prepare the team for the returning employee, which helps set appropriate expectations and promote a supportive team environment.
  • Workspace Adjustments: Depending on the employee’s condition, adjustments such as ergonomic equipment, modified work schedules, or changes in workload might be necessary to encourage a comfortable return.
  • Return-to-Work Meeting: Arrange a meeting a few days before the employee’s return. This meeting can help ease their transition back into the workplace, addressing any concerns and preventing them from feeling overwhelmed on their first day.

Aim to tailor accommodations to the needs of the returning employee, ranging from physical workspace changes to more flexible working hours or responsibilities.

Dealing with Potential Dismissal

Dismissing an employee due to long-term sickness absence is a complex matter and should only be considered as a last resort. The process involves:

  • Assessment: Carefully assess the situation to determine if dismissal is the only viable option. Review the employee’s medical condition, prognosis, and the impact of their continued absence on the business.
  • Legal Requirements: Ensure compliance with legal requirements for a fair dismissal process. Adhere to the Equality Act 2010, providing adequate notice and following the company’s disciplinary procedures.
  • Documentation: Documenting all steps taken during the process is essential for legal compliance and fairness. This documentation should include records of all communications, medical reports, and the reasons behind the decision.

We consulted HR Expert Duncan Urquhart for his advice on addressing potential dismissal due to an employee’s long-term absence:

“There isn’t a specific timeframe an employer must wait before terminating an employee on long-term sick leave. Key considerations include regularly obtaining medical information, following recommendations from Occupational Health or a GP, and exploring alternative positions for the employee. If the absence significantly impacts operations, compile substantial evidence to support a potential dismissal decision.”

Manage Long-Term Absence with The Holiday Tracker

Managing long-term sickness absence can be streamlined significantly with The Holiday Tracker. Our robust platform offers features designed specifically to ease the complexities associated with long-term absences. 

Key features include

  • Efficient Tracking: The Holiday Tracker streamlines the recording and monitoring of long-term sickness, providing a clear overview of each employee’s absence history.
  • Documentation and Reporting: Essential for accurate record-keeping, The Holiday Tracker simplifies documentation, enabling direct uploads of medical notes and relevant documents to an employee’s profile.
  • Sickness Absence Insights: Utilise our reporting tools to gain insights into sickness patterns, helping to create supportive strategies for employee well-being and reintegration.

Long-Term Absence FAQs

How Long Can Long-Term Sickness Last?

Long-term sickness absence generally refers to absences that extend beyond four weeks. The actual duration can vary significantly, from several weeks to several months, depending on the individual’s health condition and recovery process. Employers should note that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) can be paid for up to 28 weeks, offering financial support during the employee’s absence.

How Should a Long-Term Sickness Policy be Structured?

A long-term sickness absence policy needs to encompass distinct guidelines for reporting absences, the necessary documentation (like medical certificates), procedures for maintaining communication during an absence, and conducting return-to-work assessments. Additionally, it should detail the support mechanisms available for the employee.

How Should Employers Handle Performance Reviews After Long-Term Sickness?

Approach performance reviews with sensitivity. Consider the employee’s recovery and any role adjustments. Set realistic goals and expectations that align with the employee’s current capabilities.

Final Thoughts

Navigating long-term sickness absence requires a compassionate, legally sound, and structured approach. Balancing employee welfare with business needs is critical. Tools like The Holiday Tracker make this balance more achievable, providing a streamlined and efficient way to handle these sensitive scenarios.

Explore The Holiday Tracker’s capabilities and see how it can enhance your management of long-term sickness absences. Book a Demo or sign up for our Free Trial today.

See also:
Why, How and When to Measure Employee Sickness
5 Ways to Reduce Sick Leave in your Business

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