What to do when an employee suffers long-term sickness

Managing long-term sickness is one of the most difficult challenges facing any employer or HR professional...

The first step is to establish a clear and precise criteria for long term sickness — which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The definition of long term sickness often varies from organisation to organisation, and there are several schools of thought to be aware of. For example:

  • CIPD — consecutive sickness for eight days or longer is classed as long term;
  • Department of Work and Pensions — absent from work for more than four weeks;
  • ACAS — the illness may be serious, and also involve an operation and recovery time, or could be a mental health problem.

Define your own sickness policy

While it’s useful to view these separate definitions for guidance, it is the responsibility of each individual employer to define a attendance management policy that clearly states their own definition of what qualifies as ‘long term sickness’.

A clear attendance management policy makes it easier for HR to support the business, and should include detail on how best to support those individuals who are absent from work.

The policy should stipulate triggers which are a useful way for businesses to measure employee absence. According to ACAS (2015), the two most common ways of doing this are ‘the lost time rate’ which provides a percentage of total time lost, or the ‘Bradford Index’ which highlights repeated short term absences.

Triggers also give HR an opportunity to ask individuals if they have been given any medical advice regarding work, or whether they are able to share doctor’s notes for clarity. Of course, it’s always important to remain sensitive to confidential information, and only identify necessary detail that is relevant from the perspective of the business.

Be consistent

The process of managing long term sickness absence should be the same for every employee across all organisational levels:

  • Ensure the employees knows their health and wellbeing is the priority
  • Establish a preferred method of contact for important news and updates
  • Explore potential options for individuals, such as a phased return to work
  • Inform all staff of the circumstances, remaining sensitive to confidential information

The roles of line managers and HR

HR is there to offer advice and guidance when enacting policy and procedure and on employment law issues, but the day-to-day management of sickness absence is the responsibility of line managers.

Make sure all line managers are trained on the following aspects:

  • The organisations attendance policy, procedure and process
  • When to collect and what to do with ‘fit notes’
  • Legal and disciplinary aspects of sickness management
  • Essential requirements of effective record keeping
  • The role of occupational health in supporting managers
  • How to promote employee health and well-being
  • How to manage complex cases
  • How to carry out ‘return to work’ and other attendance interviews

Should you consult occupational health?

In line with your organisation’s attendance management policy, you may consider restricting occupational sick pay if you have reason to suspect an illness is being drawn out unnecessarily.

In which case, it is crucial that you adhere to the relevant employment law and always seek advice from occupational health before withholding any pay from the employee.

It is also crucial to note that organisations need to consider statutory holiday entitlement when people are on long-term absence, as well as being prepared to reimburse employees for annual leave if they are sick during their holiday.

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