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Managing Employee Long-term Sickness

View profile for Annette Wood
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Employee absence from work because of long-term illness can be very stressful for both the employer and the employee. The cost in terms of loss of productivity and turnover, especially for small and micro businesses, can be catastrophic. However, if managed in a proactive and sensitive manner it can be possible to minimise the impact and reduce overall levels of sickness absence at low or no cost. By helping someone who is having difficulty in work owing to illness or disability or intervening early on, employers can retain skilled employees and avoid additional recruitment costs. It is worth remembering that the longer someone is away from work, the harder it is for them to get back to work, which is why addressing the issue early on is so important.

According to the Office for National Statistics an estimated 137.3 million working days were lost to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016, which is equivalent to 4.3 days per worker. The direct cost to businesses of sickness absence has been estimated at £9 billion per year. One survey by the Confederation of British Industry put the median cost at £622 for each absent employee. 

Employers should have clear policies for managing sickness absence and unauthorised absence as well as a system for monitoring individual absence levels so they can identify ‘trigger points’ which may require them to take action. Absences should be recorded from the first day of absence.  Your policies should help you to know why staff are not in work, when they expect to be fit to return to work and whether, in the case of a long-term absence, you need to do anything to assist in the return to work.  When someone has been away from work for a lengthy period, several months for example, it may be advisable for them to have a phased return over a couple of weeks, gradually increasing their working hours and what they do at work.  In some cases, employers may have to consider adjusting the employee's duties not only in the short term but also in the medium and sometimes longer term.  The employer must be reasonable in making adjustments to an employee's duties or working hours; however, if this is not possible the employee's contract may have to be terminated.  This can be a tricky situation for all concerned but having clear policies and guidance can help. 

If your employee is often away sick or they’re off for a long time you can ask for medical advice, if the employee agrees, to help you understand whether there is an underlying medical condition and if any reasonable adjustments are necessary. It could also help you decide if there is anything you can do to help them improve their attendance – for example, setting attendance targets within an agreed monitoring period.

After a period of absence, it’s also advisable to hold a return to work interview to welcome them back, discuss any problems they may be experiencing which are contributing to their absence and get them up to speed on anything they’ve missed while they’ve been away.

Offering periods of flexible working in particular may help people to manage or recover from a health condition. This helps to keep employees in work and avoid the costs associated with lower productivity, disruption and replacing employees.

Employers have a legal responsibility to protect the wellbeing of their employees at work, and while you are not expected to create a special job for the employee, you are expected to try hard to work out where they could again play a part.

Dealing with a long-term sickness absence can be complex and seeking professional advice could help you to avoid making a costly mistake.