How to support staff on long-term sick leave whilst protecting your business

This is when you can show what kind of boss you are.

David Quinn: BrightHR Social Media Manager

Most unplanned leave comes in the form of short-term sickness, with employees returning after a few days. Sometimes, however, absence can be longer term. This can be tricky to manage for business owners, especially if it’s the first time you’ve had to deal with it.

In this blog we discuss the causes and effects of long-term sickness as well as some of the ways you can help those absent and those returning to work.


The causes of long-term absence

There are a variety of reasons why people are off work long term, from serious injuries to mental health issues. In 2016 a CIPD survey found that the most common causes of long-term absence in the workplace were:

  • Stress
  • Acute medical conditions
  • Mental illness
  • Musculoskeletal injuries
  • Back pain


The effects of long-term absence

Whilst the financial implications of long-term absence may be at the forefront of a business owner's mind it isn’t the only effect that you need to consider.


  • The financial effects

Like all types of absence, long-term absence has a financial effect on any business. From the Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) employers have to pay to the potential cost of hiring cover for the employee who is off.


  • The team and business effects

When you lose a member of staff for an extended period of time it is going to have a knock on effect with your other staff, as they might have to step in help cover the workload. This could have an impact in terms of the team's overall productivity, morale may take a hit due to the increased pressures, and it could have negative result on your overall business as your customers may start to see typically high service standards slip.

  • The personal effects

It's important to remember that biggest effect will be felt by the employee who is absent. Your employee may be going through a tough period and in some cases long-term sickness causes could be life altering. It is, therefore, important to support your employees through this time and to treat them with compassion. You might also consider implementing an Employee Assistance Programme, to provide an extra peace of mind for staff with long-term absence issues.


Supporting staff on long-term absence

How do you support staff who are off due to a long-term absence and what can you be doing to make the transition easier when they are ready to return to work?

  • Communication - the right level (too much could cause stress!)

Communication is key when it comes to employees who may be off longer term. This is to understand the situation, to ensure the employee knows you are supporting them through what is usually a difficult time and, if relevant, you can discuss the methods and frequency of your contact. The nature of the absence will usually dictate the frequency and methods of communication but, whatever the reason, it’s important not to pressure the employee into returning to work too early, to support them and to be sensitive to their situation.


  • Workplace adjustments

In some cases, you may need to make adjustments to the workplace to assist those who are returning to work after a long-term absence. This may include improving accessibility, providing new office equipment, adjusting working hours or providing alternative work, or even supporting them through supervision or mentoring.

  • Are the reasons for long-term sickness in your control and preventable?

The majority of reasons employees take long-term absence are beyond the control of business owners. However, there are some causes that, if caught early enough, can be prevented. Take stress and back pain for example. By carefully monitoring workloads, introducing flexible hours or by restricting working out of hours, employers can help combat stress within the workforce. And with investments in better office equipment, workplace health and fitness initiatives, back pain can be either prevented or managed before it becomes a more serious issue.

  • Return-to-work interview

Holding a return-to-work interview may sound like some sort of interrogation but it shouldn't be seen that way. In fact, it can be an extremely useful tool to reintroduce an employee who has been off long term back into the workplace: to get them up to speed with what they may have missed, to understand any concerns the employee may have, and to see if there are any steps or any adjustments that you can make so that the transition back to work is as easy as possible.


Find out more about how your business can plan for unplanned long-term absence with our latest guide 'Planning for unplanned absence'