Long Term Sickness at Work

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Hannah Williamson

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08 Jan 2021

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For every business, knowing how to manage long-term sickness is vital.

Employers may fail to check in on their staff. Others will be too harsh, and ready to dismiss staff for absence, which can result in unfair dismissal claims.

Finding an approach that is both sensitive and effective is challenging.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about long-term sickness absence.

What is long-term sickness?

The definition of long-term sickness absence differs from company to company. There are, however, three main interpretations:

  1. Consecutive sickness absence for eight days or longer.
  2. Absent from work for more than four weeks.
  3. A serious illness and may also involve an operation or significant recovery time. This could be a significant mental health issue, not just physical.

These definitions at the very least provide a minimum to work with—eight days.

With this in mind, you should define your business’s view on long-term sickness absence in your company policy.

Dealing with long term sickness absence

If one of your employees is on sick leave and you aren’t sure how to manage the situation, there are some steps you can take:

Hold a formal absence meeting

Normally, you would hold this after over 4 weeks of absence where there are no plans for an imminent return.

Be as flexible with this meeting as you can. If you can conduct the meeting via video call, do so. Make sure they’re aware a family member can accompany them.

The purpose of this meeting should be:

  • To understand the condition of the employee.
  • Discuss what adjustments you can make to help them back into the workplace.

Take substantial notes

The meeting is formal, which means you should be taking notes of what you discuss. Not only does this help manage the rest of the process, but it also proves that you are following a fair process.

Follow up in writing

Make a copy of the meeting notes and send a copy to the employee. You should also write to them regarding any adjustments you’re making to encourage their return.

Record the impact of the long-term sick leave

The “impact” is often financial, but it’s important to look beyond that. What is the impact on their colleagues? Are they picking up extra work as a result of the absence? Document all of this and keep a record.

Consult with health professionals. You can write to your employee to gain consent to gather further medical information from their GP.

 This will help you assess how long the absence could last and what adjustments you can make. The employee has the right to see their GP’s notes before you receive them.

Hold a second absence meeting

If the employee is off work for a further month, you can consider a second meeting. Follow the same format of your first meeting. Refer back to all of the information you gathered in the previous steps and discuss them. Review any steps already taken and judge their effectiveness.

Hold a final meeting

If the employee continues to be absent and there is no clear return to work date, you can invite the employee to a final meeting.

In this meeting, you should consider whether you’ll terminate the employee due to capability. Raise the possibility of this to them and discuss (again) whether there is anything you can do to help them to return to the workplace.

If they still can’t return to work, you may pursue a capability dismissal.

Throughout this whole process, remember that employees have long term sick leave entitlements, such as statutory sick pay (SSP).

In the next section, we’ll look more in-depth at the pay entitlements employees have.

Long term sick pay UK

Most employees are entitled to up to 28 weeks of SSP. The current rate for this long-term sick pay is £95.85 a week. To be eligible for this they must hit certain criteria, such as:

  • They must be an employee and currently working for you
  • They must earn a minimum of £120 per week
  • They must abide by your company absence rules, particularly when notifying you of absence

After the 28 weeks are up, they can apply for employment and support allowance (ESA).

Those on long term sick leave can carry their annual leave into the next holiday year. They don’t have to request to do this. You should pay them for this outstanding leave if you terminate their employment.

Can I dismiss an employee on long term sick leave?

Yes, you can dismiss an employee on long term sick leave, but only after following a reasonable process.

If your employee has more than two years’ service and/or their absence is due to a disability, you are at risk of an unfair dismissal and discrimination claim. Before considering dismissal, you should be holding a series of meetings and obtaining medical information to guide your decision making.

Return to work after long term sickness

The longer an employee’s absence is, the more difficult getting back to work after long term sickness can be.

You have a number of options to try and make the transition easier.

The first is a phased return to work. With this approach, you can reduce working hours, working days, even working weeks. You should discuss this with the employee before returning them to work to find a balance they’re comfortable with.

On the first day back, you should hold a return to work meeting. This will help assess how the employee is feeling about the return, and whether they have any lingering concerns. It may be worth having another catch up a week or so later to see how they are getting on.

The goal is to reduce the anxiety the individual may feel upon their return. This is particularly important if the reason for their absence was due to their mental health.

Long term sick leave and mental health

When we discuss long periods of absence, we usually think of severe physical illnesses or injuries. The truth is an employee can go on long term sick leave due to depression, anxiety, and stress.

There are a number of mental health issues that can result in long periods of absence.

In this scenario, we’d recommend following the same steps as with physical illnesses. Be considerate, and don’t downplay the severity of the illness. It’s important to keep in touch and hold meetings with the employee to assess their capability.

Remember that the barriers that an employee on leave for a physical illness will be different than those for a person on long term sick with depression. Workplace accessibility is unlikely to be an issue for those suffering with their mental health. Attending the meeting might be an issue due to anxiety. Do what you can to reassure the employee and put their mind at ease.

If an employee takes time off work to care for a dependant due to a mental health issue, there are other rules to consider. Time off for a dependant should never turn into a period of long term sick leave. Typically, this type of leave doesn’t last more than a few days. As always, communication is key to understanding the issue and ensuring an effective return to work.

Long term sick leave policy

The key to ensuring employee absence is effectively managed is to create a solid absence policy. Chances are, you already have one of these. However, it’s never a bad time to review, particularly to ask the question: “Does this cover all long term sickness employment rights in the UK?”

Here are our key things to consider when assessing (or creating) your long term sick policy:

  • What is its purpose and scope: The policy should cover what classes as long-term sickness absence. It should also make clear that capability dismissal is a possibility. Finally, it should highlight that you need to balance the disruption to company productivity and the time for the employee to recover.
  • What do you expect of employees and managers: Highlight the importance of communication between employees and their line managers. Mention that you will require medical evidence in the form of a fit note for absences longer than seven days.
  • Does the employee know their entitlements: Make staff aware of their sick pay entitlement. If you offer enhanced sick pay, highlight this too. Staff will also continue to accrue holiday as normal during sick leave. They can carry this leave over into the new holiday year. If the employee faces a capability dismissal, make sure they know they can appeal this decision.
  • When do meetings occur: Set trigger points for when you intend to hold meetings. For example, state that you will schedule a meeting after 28 days of absence. Set another after 3 months of absence, and so on.
  • What can you do to accommodate a return to work: There are many ways you can help an employee return to work after a period of absence. Highlight these methods:
    • A phased return to work
    • Back to work meetings
    • A temporary role reassignment
  • Do you take special cases into account: Certain circumstances may risk discrimination. Exercise extra caution if the employee is disabled, or pregnant. Consider including further information on these cases in a different document.
  • Long term sick leave and employers’ rights: You can highlight what you expect, as an employer, in your sickness absence policy. This is a space, not only to make clear what company policy is, but to express what your company standards are.

There are also special considerations when an employee is terminally ill. You can use the policy to explain that you’ll endeavour to accommodate the employee’s wishes. Remind staff that there is no obligation to inform you of the illness, but it’s better to do so to allow appropriate support.

Expert support

If you want a sickness absence policy drafting or reviewing, we can help. If you need advice on managing an employee on long term sick leave, we can help. If you need someone to conduct meetings with the employee on your behalf, we can help.

Contact Croner for expert HR support whenever you need it on 0145 585 8132>

About the Author

Hannah Williamson is a CIPD Qualified HR professional with over 10 years’ experience in generalist HR management working within the Manufacturing Industry.

Working for a Global manufacturer provided Hannah with the opportunity to work in America and across Europe supporting HR functions and the wider business.

Hannah is Croner’s Advice Manager, taking responsibility for overseeing the provision of advice to all Croner clients, bringing together our Corporate, Simplify and Association service provisions.

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