Long-term Sickness Absence

legal updates

Where an employee has been absent from work, due to their incapacity to attend, the aim is always to, where reasonably possible, assist in their return to and continuance of work.

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Employers need not be wary when dealing with the long-term sickness absence of their employees.

There is the potential that, as a result of illness or injury, an employee is absent from work because they are not fit to attend and perform their duties.

Where an employee has been absent from work, due to their incapacity to attend, the aim is always to, where reasonably possible, assist in their return to and continuance of work.

Yet, employers can be apprehensive when dealing with members of staff who have been off sick for a lengthy period. This can be particularly daunting for employers when the cause of sickness is not clear or are awaiting confirmation of an employee’s diagnosis.

However, fear not! It is not in your best interest, as employers, to allow a situation of long-term absence, which can be 2-4 weeks or more, to wallow into the abyss. Particularly where an employee has been absent for so long, dismissal begins to look like the only possible option. This can present problems relating to unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.

Your best strength and form of defence is regular contact and communication with an absent employee. Invite the employee to a formal meeting, allow the employee to be accompanied by a work colleague or Trade Union representative and have notes taken as a record of what is discussed. The meeting is held to discuss the absence and likely return to the workplace.

As an employer, you are likely to want to discuss and explore the following issues:

  • A likely date of return in the foreseeable future or whether, as the employer, you can reasonably sustain the level of long-term absence and wait for the employee to return.
  • Discuss and make arrangements for future contact, a welfare telephone call once a week or a confirmed date for further meetings under your company sickness absence procedure as well as contact following any medical reviews.
  • Whether the employee has a disability or a prolonged medical condition.
  • Whether the employee believes they can return to their previous role without temporary or permanent adjustments.
  • Whether the employee believes they can return to their previous role where reasonable adjustments are made. As an employer, you can determine whether adjustments can be made – are they practicable, reasonable, financially viable, etc.? If the employee is disabled, you have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Whether alternatives to the job role can be explored such as reducing working hours, flexible working, or redeployment.

Future formal meetings may well be warranted where all possibilities of a return to work are explored but a return to work remains fruitless and unlikely. In such cases, dismissal on the grounds of ill health may be seriously considered and can be reasonably justified.

However, where dismissal is the reasonable next step and where you are unable to sufficiently sustain long-term sickness absence levels, you can be confident as an employer, that you have robustly considered all possible options intent on the employee returning and remaining at work. Furthermore, your processes for managing long-term sickness absence are fair, just, and reasonable in the circumstances.

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