Managing long term sickness absence

In this two minute HR Blast we wanted to focus on the complex and frustrating topic of managing long term sickness absence – this topic results in more calls to our advice line each week than any other issue!

Some recent headlines

  1. Last week, a head teacher in the Isle of Wight who was supposedly off sick, was reported on local radio as having been found working in a school in Kent! Those responsible for managing her were reported as saying that she had gone off sick in the summer but they hadn’t heard from her since. It was unclear from the report whether they were saying that she was wrong for not contacting them or they were remiss in not managing her? Hmm …
  1. Tesco was in the papers last week for unfairly dismissing a long term sick employee, we were staggered to read “Tesco admitted that they had no specific policy for their 8,000 head office staff around long-term sickness and returning to work.” Its bizarre given that long term sickness absence is such a huge issue for all organisations … and their reason for this lack of procedure? “Those working in head office were generally paid more than in other parts of the business.” So only poorly paid staff go off sick? We think not!

What the Jaluch advisors typically come across

  • Staff off sick for months before the organisation identifies a problem has arisen. In the worst cases, this can be 12 months or more.
  • Managers don’t know how to communicate with staff who are off sick and as a result do nothing, or otherwise revert to leaving endless voicemail messages for their employee.
  • Staff off on long term sickness absence as a result of the ‘stress’ brought on by disciplinary proceedings and organisations frozen into inaction as a result of the fear of a tribunal claim.
  • Sickness issues failing, due to lack of clarity as to who is responsible for managing them … occupational health, HR, the GP, the line manager, the line manager’s manager?
  • No long term sickness policy or a policy that is in place but managers are not up to speed with what constitutes long term sickness and therefore do not know at what point the policy should kick in.
  • Managers not having a clue how much sick pay has been paid out, so they don’t know how important it is to manage this situation promptly.

A few facts

  • Most long term sickness (LTS) policies suggest that an employee should be considered to be off on LTS from about 4 weeks continuous absence.
  • Most GP fit notes and doctor’s reports give you little or any support. So don’t hold your breath waiting for clear medical guidance about your employee’s return to work or light duties
  • It has been found that once an employee has been off for just 5 weeks or more the likelihood of them ever returning diminishes with every passing week.
  • It is possible to continue with disciplinary action when someone is off on long term sickness provided that you proceed with care and take advice.
  • If an employee has gone off sick during formal disciplinary action, citing stress caused by the disciplinary action, it is logical that the way to relieve their stress is to conclude the disciplinary action. In this instance so as to not add to their stress they might be encouraged to make written submissions rather than attend a meeting.
  • If you don’t manage the difficult stuff as a result of being threatened with a tribunal then you will lose the confidence and respect of other staff who are left picking up the workload of your sick employee.

A few tips

  • Regular contact is essential with anyone off on long term sick.
  • Regular doctor’s notes are essential – do not let the discipline of getting these slip.
  • Scheduled home visits are often essential to maintain good contact.
  • Clarity over pay and when sick payments will stop/reduce is essential, it will avoid any ill feeling.
  • The employee should be aware of the policy on managing long term sickness, it will enable them to see they are being treated fairly and in line with how others have been treated.
  • It will often be insufficient to just organise a return to work date as confidence starts to slip after just a few weeks. In the return schedule, build in opportunity to slowly rebuild confidence.

A warning: This isn’t about following a procedure. Managers often look like rabbits in headlights when asked to manage sensitive and difficult situations! Take the time to support your managers and build their confidence. Those off sick often lack confidence too. This is a new situation to them, they don’t know what to expect and very quickly they will start to feel isolated. So put effort into keeping their confidence up if you wish to get them back into work.

Over the years, we have seen much success in managing long term absence when an organisation’s staff representatives support the manager in communicating with and encouraging the employee to return. Want to know how to get more out of your staff reps or work with them better? Here’s a link to some of our staff reps training.

How Jaluch can support

Our advice team

  • Writing long term sickness policies.
  • Drafting letters to staff off sick and supporting at meetings with unfit employees.
  • Developing the confidence of managers to manage their staff.
  • Tribunal responses and discussions with the employee and ACAS should conciliation be the way forward.

Our training team

  • Managing Absence training kit
  • Managing Performance training kit
  • Effective communication skills one day course
  • Managing Absence one day course
  • One to one coaching for line managers

We would love to hear from you, please do get in touch! In addition to our existing offerings, for those of you who like to budget, Jaluch is now able to offer a package of HR support for a set monthly fee. Please ask us for information.

The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and represents our understanding of employment and associated law and employee relations issues as at the date of publication. Jaluch Limited, or any of its directors or employees, cannot be held responsible for any action or inaction taken in reliance upon the contents. Specific advice should be sought on all individuals matters.

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