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Managing Sickness Absences through the Coronavirus Pandemic

Coronavirus has disrupted all of our lives more than we ever could have imagined, but what do we do about those employees that have been off sick for a significant amount of time? Has Covid-19 changed anything?

 

Where the sickness absence is related to Coronavirus

There are many employees that have now been off work for over 4 weeks, needing to self-isolate due to symptoms and family members with symptoms, or those that have been signed off by the doctor with conditions such as anxiety, caused by the coronavirus.

If employees have symptoms (or have family members with symptoms), they need to follow NHS and government advice and self-isolate for 2 weeks from the start of each family members’ symptoms.

It is more complex for those employees who are suffering from anxiety, or similar conditions, caused by the pandemic. The reality is that we are not sure how long this pandemic is likely to last, but any employee signed off with a ‘Fit Note’ issued by their GP should be treated the same way as any other sickness or illness. However, it might be useful to arrange phone calls with the employee to talk them through what the practice has done to try and mitigate the risks and make the environment as safe as possible.

When it is not related to Coronavirus

It is difficult to manage ongoing long-term sickness at the moment due to a number of factors, including being so busy with the pandemic and trying to manage other employees off sick. It is important however, not to forget about those at home and ensure that the practice sickness policy is still being followed.

Is it ok to contact employees on long-term sick?

Yes, absolutely. Most sick policies state that the employer and employee should stay in regular contact. It is for the practice to decide how regular this could be. It could be a phone call every week or two, it could be a monthly ‘Welfare Meeting’ to check in with the employee and ensure that they are doing ok.

Can I still make a referral to Occupational Health?

Of course you can – with the current restrictions, the appointment might need to be carried out over the phone or via a video link, but this should not impact the quality of the information you receive back.

Can we still hold Sickness Meetings?

Yes. The meetings ideally should be held via a video link or on a conference call. Notes should be taken during the meeting which means that a notetaker should also be present. If this is not possible or necessary, the manager could take notes themselves, however it is not ideal to be distracted from the conversation. This is likely to mean that some sort of conferencing facility might be needed to allow three on the phone or video-link at the same time.

What is a good long term sickness procedure to follow during Lockdown?

Each practice should always follow their sickness procedure, however a general overview following the ACAS Code of Practice would be:

  • Ensure you keep in regular contact
  • Always seek the advice of a medical professional, such as making a referral to Occupational Health
  • Ensure the employee is very clear on their Sick Pay
  • Hold Welfare Meetings where you discuss a return to work. What is recommended on the sick note from the medical professional, what might make the employee most comfortable, particularly if they have been off for a while?
  • Develop a Return to Work Program that includes regular check-ins to ensure that the employee is managing well when they are back to work.

How long is too long for an employee to be off sick?

There is no black and white answer to this question. An employer must decide what is reasonable and fair, but what is reasonable for a large corporation, may be very different from a small GP Practice. The practice must decide;

  • How long they can reasonably cover the absence
  • How long can they afford to pay for the employee to be off sick
  • How long can the practice have the position absent
  • The impact on the rest of the practice employees

Most practices tend to consider a year to be a ‘reasonable’ long-term absence, but of course every situation is different. If the practice follows their sickness policy and procedure and every other option has been exhausted, it might be appropriate to consider dismissing the employee by reason of ill health. A practice should only move to make this decision if there is no other option and the practice feels they can reasonably justify it.

Has your practice got a strong sickness procedure? If not, we have a Sickness Management Procedure in the FPM Policies & Procedures Library. You can also contact our HR Advisor for help by emailing hrhelp@firstpracticemanagement.co.uk

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