Long term sick leave: handling the issue and supporting your employees

The Government’s Fit for Work Service is due to publish its recommendations this summer. The aim? To reduce the annual £3 billion cost in sick leave to British Businesses.

Work out the cost

Sick leave is an emotive subject. Naturally you want to be supportive of an employee’s need to recover, but you need to ensure your business can still function. So what can you do?

As cold as it sounds, the cost of sick leave does need to be taken into account. Unless they have enhanced sick pay benefits, employees are not entitled to receive full pay. Statutory Sick Pay is currently £86.70 per week pay and must be paid by the employer for up to 28 weeks, possibly more if you have an additional sick pay scheme.

Keep good records

Absences of under seven days are usually self-certified and a standard back-to-work interview can take place when an employee returns to work. This allows you to discuss the reasons for the absence and determine if any further support is needed. This interview may also help you and your employee identify any issues at work that might prevent a short term illness developing into a long term absence or if there is an underlying medical condition that could get worse. It also sends out a clear message that you take sick leave seriously, for the benefit of the organisation and your employees.

Keeping good records of absences will help you identify any patterns in sick leave and mean you can easily determine when statutory sick pay and/or company sick pay has been exhausted, and correct adjustments to salary may need to be made.

Follow the GP’s advice

A doctor’s statement of fitness for work (known as a ‘fit note’) is required after seven days of absence (including non-working days). The fit note will tell you if the employee isn’t fit for work, or that they’re fit for work but with the doctor’s suggestions about ways to help their recovery back at work. This could include: phased return; altered hours; amended duties; and/or workplace adaptations.  

Whilst you’re not duty-bound to follow the advice given in the fit note, it’s the most responsible course to take, as an employer.  You can discuss the fit note with the employee and take account of any industry-specific health and safety regulations that the doctor may not be aware of.

Any temporary arrangements must be confirmed to the employee in writing, including the applicable dates. Even if you’ve worked hard to help the employee back to work, you may not be able to provide the support suggested in the fit note. If this is the case, explain the reasons to the employee and treat them as being unfit for work. They do not need to return to their GP for a new fit note to confirm this.

Prepare for a long-term situation

If an employee’s absence has become long-term, it is important to maintain regular contact. This shows your support for the employee during their recovery and also allows you to stay informed of any developments in their condition and treatment. You should be sympathetic to their situation, but the employee should understand that you need to monitor their recovery closely.

If it looks as though the absence will continue and there is no indication of a likely return date, you can review the employee’s absence. You should inform them of this and that you would like to obtain a medical report, with their written authority.

The outcome of your investigation, and any medical report, will indicate how to proceed. As a priority, you must consider any reasonable adjustments that could be made to work arrangements that will help them return, especially if the employee is suffering from a disability.

Your aim should always be to help your employee return to work. However, if concerns about the employee’s absence can’t be resolved after proper investigation of all issues and alternatives, you may consider dismissal or action short of dismissal (such as demotion). If it relates to the employee’s capability to fulfil the role they’ve been employed for, then ill health is potentially a fair reason for dismissal.

Look after your other employees

Finally, while an employee is away from work you need to think about how their absence might be covered by their colleagues. You may decide to recruit extra staff temporarily, but this will probably depend on how long the sick leave is likely to last and the specific job carried out by that employee. While personal details of the reasons for sick leave must be kept confidential, do keep affected colleagues informed of any extra work you might need them to take on, any temporary staff who may be joining, and the expected return to work date, if appropriate.

Beth Brierley is an Employment Lawyer with Riverview Law. Further information about this and other topics can be found by registering for free on the Riverview Law website: *www.riverviewlaw.com*. You can follow them on Twitter *@RiverviewLawSME*