Managing Long-Term Absence

Posted in : HR Updates on 14 October 2015
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services
Issues covered:

A common cause for concern for managers and business owners is absence due to long term sickness. Often there is nervousness on the part of managers in relation to how to manage these situations, given the potential sensitive nature of this area, with common queries including:

  • 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. Organisations should check any internal absence management procedures and ensure that these are followed.

Can we contact employees who are long-term sick?

There is often a delay or ignorance on the part of managers to make contact with employees who are sick. This is often due to anxiety around whether or not they are ‘allowed’ to make contact in these situations. In reality, employers should keep in regular contact with sick employees to keep communication going during time away from work.
In addition to absence reporting on the part of the employee, it is advisable for the manager to hold a ‘case review’ or ‘welfare’ meeting with such employees to discuss their absence and get an update on their state of health. This can be helpful for workforce planning, i.e. 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.

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 their 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 of the employees situation.

This article is correct at 19/10/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

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