Managing Long-Term Sickness Absence

According to CIPD (The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) the most common causes of long-term sickness absence are stress, acute medical conditions (for example stroke), mental ill health, musculoskeletal injuries and back pain.

Long –term sickness is probably one of the most difficult problems for practices to tackle, and have the potential to result in claims of unfair dismissal or disability discrimination. Which is why it’s no surprise some employers shy away from managing the situation hoping it will sort itself out.

Key steps to dealing with long-term absence.

  • Your first step is to make sure that you deal with the employee’s absence in line with your practice’s absence policy, and that you deal with all employees’ consistently.

  • Keep in contact with the employee, there seems to be a misconception that you’re not allowed to contact an employee when they’re on sick leave. While some employees may welcome the intrusion others may feel abandoned.  The Employer needs to be sensitive and use common sense when contacting an employee. A good employer should be pro-active in keeping in-touch with an employee during long-term absence.

  • With the employee’s permission commission a report from occupational health or general practitioner. Enabling you to establish when/if a return to will be possible.

  • In some cases a home visit may be necessary to discuss referral/reports from occupational health/general practitioner and temporary adjustments which may help facilitate an earlier return to work.

  • Does the “statement of fitness for work” say the employee may be fit for some work? Could a phased return to work , working reduced hours or more flexible hours be considered? There is a requirement Under the Equality Act 2010 to make a reasonable adjustment? For example making physical adjustments to the workplace, allocating some of the duties to another person, transferring disabled person into a vacant post with or without reasonable adjustments being made.

  • Keep the employee up to date with their sick pay arrangements, ensuring they do not go into a “no” pay situation without being fully aware.

  • In some cases it may be appropriate for the practice simply to keep in touch with the employee, allowing them the time to recover. In other cases meeting with the employee can relieve anxiety.

  • Meeting with the employee prior to their return to work to devise a phased return to work plan with review dates can be very beneficial. If an employee has been absent for a long period of time the thought of just setting foot over the threshold can be quite daunting. Something that may be worthwhile considering  and arranging a couple of informal meetings at the practice around the team’s break times, which will enable them to catch up with their colleagues and what’s new so they do not feel completely out of it on their first day back.

  • Only as a very last resort, once all other options have been considered should dismissal on the grounds of ill health be considered. If you do proceed towards a dismissal you will potentially have to show that the dismissal is justified and fair after properly exploring all the options open.

Please note the above guidance is of a general nature. It is important that practices ensure policy guidelines and contractual obligations are followed.

In addition to the above FPM members can obtain further information via the FPM website. Alternatively members can also email specific questions about employment issues to advice@firstpracticemanagement.co.uk where your question will be treated in confidence and will normally be answered (by email) within 2 working days of submission.

Information from ACAS, Personnel Today and CIPD website has been used within this article.


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