How to Manage Long Term Sickness Absence

Posted in : HR Updates on 17 April 2018
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services
Issues covered:

The next video in our short series with Helen O'Brien of BeyondHR focuses on questions around the issues that HR consultants have when managing long-term sickness absence. This 7 minute Q&A answers a number of frequently asked questions including when is an absence considered as long-term, in what circumstances is it fair to dismiss an employee on long-term sick leave, medical reports and ill-health reviews, the purpose of them and where they should be held. 



When is an absence considered to be long-term?

Well, there's no hard and fast rule really, and any individual employer could decide for themselves what they wanted to set that at. As far as I'm concerned, you shouldn't have an employee off on long-term sickness for more than, say, four to six weeks before that you would be getting in contact with them and saying, "Look, can we have a chat about your illness and what the circumstances are?"

In what circumstance is it fair to dismiss an employee who has gone off on long-term sick leave?

Well, that's a loaded question, and really depends on the individual circumstances. We advise on this all the time and we find that each case is different and you really need to look at the individual circumstances to know where you go and what you take into consideration.

As a general rule, if you've got an employee who cannot come to work, where there is no indication of when they are going to be likely to come to work and do their job, and where there is no adjustments that the GP or the employee or the company can think of that would facilitate their return to work, then you may well be in a situation where you can fairly dismiss, but you still have to follow through with the process.

If an employee is off for four to six weeks, for you have to as employer to convene an ill-health meeting?

No, not necessarily. If you're well aware of the circumstances . . . so, let's say for example you know they've had an operation, you know they've been in hospital for a period of time, and you know how long the recovery period is going to be, then really there's no need to have an ill-health meeting.

Obviously, you're still in contact with the employee. There may phoning, etc., and you're getting sick notes, but there's no need to actually meet with them formally to discuss what's wrong because you have all that information. You do have to be consistent, though. You have to treat people consistently because, as I said, that protects you from unfairness or discriminatory claims.

What if the medical report differs from the information the employee has given you?

Well, in my experience, we are advising clients, that's quite usual, but usually it's because the employee wasn't aware of a lot of the information and thought maybe that they were better than they were. And they usually agree with what the GP is saying in terms of their current prognosis.

But it depends as well. It could be that the employer is saying, "Oh, I'm fit to come back. I can come back in three weeks even though the doctor says I can't". In that circumstance I would say, "Well, okay, we will wait three weeks and let's see if you can come back", and the chances are they won't be able to come back in that three weeks, which gives you every opportunity then to run with what the GP has said.

Also, if the report is from a GP and there are a lot of differences, maybe the employee is at loggerheads with what the GP has said, you could get then another independent report from an independent specialist. It is going to cost you the money again, but it may well be a way of sorting out any difficult issues that you need to address.

What happens if an employee refuses to give permission for you to contact their GP?

That happens more regularly than you would think because an employee doesn't want their employer contacting their GP and having access to their whole history of their medical conditions. In those circumstances then, you would ask them to attend an independent specialist, perhaps an occupational specialist, and you would be writing to them to find out as much information as you can. And the more questions you ask, and this applies when you're writing to the GP or to an independent specialist, the more answers you're going to get.

So, you would start off in the letter by telling them exactly what the employees does, what their job is, maybe what their absences have been like, how long they've been off sick, what their job involves, and, if appropriate, if there's any physical aspects of their job, bending, stretching, pulling. Give them all that information so they understand exactly what the employee's role is within your company.

And then ask them what the situation is, how it affects them, if they're on any treatment or any medication, if this is improving the situation, are they fit to come to work at this point in time, when would they likely be fit to return to work, and is there any adjustments that you could make that might facilitate their return to work.

Once you have that report, then you need to make sure that the employee sees it. Quite often, they will ask to see it before the employer sees it. But make sure they have a chance to read it, and then invite them in for another ill-health review so that you can discuss the report and the way forward.

What is the purpose of the ill-health review?

Well, firstly, it's to find out how the employee is. How are they keeping? Are they getting any better? Is there any treatment? How have they been feeling? And you can also tactfully ask them if there's any indication of when they are likely to return to work.

Now you can't insist that an employee will answer all your questions. They may not know. They may know very little about their own circumstances, but you may get enough information from that to understand exactly what the circumstances are and you know what's going to happen going forward for the next couple of weeks or maybe even for a month.

But if you don't get enough information, then you may feel that it's an appropriate time to ask the employee's permission to contact their own GP. Now they do have to give you that permission in writing, and at the time they give you that permission, you've got to tell them what their rights are under the access to medical reports and personnel files order.

Where should the review be held?     

Well, it depends on the circumstances. You can invite the employee to come into work to hold a meeting, but if you feel that's inappropriate or you know that's inappropriate, then offer them a neutral environment that they might be happy to attend.

Sometimes the circumstances are that the employee maybe can't come to the workplace or anywhere else, in which case you'll have to offer them that you will go to their home and have the ill-health review meeting there.

Can you hire someone temporarily to cover for an employee who is on long-term sick leave?

Absolutely. It is completely okay. Quite often, employers have to because the work is critical and they need it done. The bit of advice I would give is get in contact with the employee who's off sick and explain to them what you're doing and why you're doing it so they don't feel threatened by somebody else coming in and taking their job.

This article is correct at 17/04/2018

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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