How should you manage the absence of employees due to long-term sickness? Our health and safety consultants answer some of your more common questions.

Managers often have concerns in terms of managing long-term absence, given the potential sensitive nature of this area and the repercussions if an employee does not manage to return to work. Common queries include the following.

  • When is an employee classed as being long-term sick?

  • Can we contact employees who are long-term sick?

  • How do we get them back to work?

  • What happens if they are too unwell to return to work at all?

  • What are the risks involved?

When is an employee classed as long-term sick?

Employees are normally considered to be classed as long-term sick once any absence has lasted for four weeks or more, although this is not a statutory time period and can be determined by the organisation themselves. However, it is the period after which GPs and employers can make a referral to the government-funded Fit for Work occupational health advice service, with the employee’s consent. Organisations should check any internal absence management procedures and ensure that these are followed.

Can we contact employees who are long-term sick?

Managers often delay making contact with employees who are sick for fear of appearing to be hounding or putting pressure on them. But employers should in fact keep in regular contact with sick employees to keep communication going during the time away from work and to show them that they have the organisation’s support and attention.

In addition to absence reporting on the part of the employee, it is advisable for the manager to hold a “welfare” meeting with such employees to discuss their absence and get an update on their state of health. This is essential for workforce planning, ie to arrange further cover if the absence is likely to continue, or to make plans for an employee’s return to work.

How do we get them back to work?

Throughout any absence, managers should discuss options with the employee that may help facilitate a return to work, such as adjustments to their duties or conditions of employment. The employer may decide that detailed medical advice is required and as such could seek signed consent from the employee to write to their medical practitioner for a confidential medical report or occupational health assessment.

For employers who would like help, the newly-established Fit for Work service offers free, expert and impartial advice via its website (http://fitforwork.org) and telephone line (0800 032 6235). If an employee has been off sick for at least four weeks, or looks as though they will be, employers can — with their permission — refer the employee for free to an occupational health professional who will help identify the obstacles preventing the employee from returning to work, and produce a specific Return to Work Plan.

What happens if they are too unwell to return to work at all?

If medical evidence shows that a sick employee is unlikely to return to work in the foreseeable future due to ill health, and provided there are no alternative roles or reasonable adjustments that could be made to facilitate a return, the employer may decide to arrange a capability hearing and dismiss the employee on the grounds of ill-health capability; although this would be the final step an employer takes after full consideration of the circumstances.

What are the risks involved?

Employees who are deemed to have a disability under the Equality Act 2010 are entitled to have reasonable adjustments considered by the employer, to help them at work or return to work. Failure to make reasonable adjustments could result in a disability discrimination claim. Further, employees with more than two years’ service who are either dismissed, or with whom the employer fails to keep in touch with during any long-term sickness absence, may decide to bring a claim for unfair or constructive dismissal against the employer.

Long-term absence therefore, is something that can benefit from a proactive response. If your organisation does not have a long-term absence policy and procedures in place, it is something that should be addressed.

Last reviewed 12 October 2015