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Managing Long Term Absence, What are the Best Practices?

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Sickness absence is a difficult issue that most employers will require to deal with from time to time. To help employers navigate this issue we have included our guide to managing long term sickness absence below.

What is Long Term Absence?

Long term absence is normally considered to be any sickness absence of more than 4 weeks. The absence can be for any reason, whether that be a physical or mental health issue. The employee is required to submit a medical certificate from their GP (which is technically referred to as a Statement of Fitness for Work) after 7 days of consecutive absence, and this will detail the specific reason for their absence. The reasons for long term absence can be hugely varied from a broken bone to a long term illness such as cancer, or a mental health related issue such as anxiety, stress at work or depression.

Long term absence clearly differs from short term absence based on duration, and your approach to short term absence will depend on your policies – most commonly there will be return to work interview with the employee on their return along with a risk assessment of their duties where required. Many employers monitor short term absence levels of employees, and take action where they consider this to be excessive.

It is important to note an employee presenting a medical certificate from their GP in itself does not always constitute that you are dealing with a long term absence issue because their GP could advise the employee is fit to return after a few weeks. It is not always clear at the outset what you are dealing with. But once an employee’s absence reaches the 4 week mark, it’s time to start handling this as a long term absence issue.

Why is Managing Long Term Absence Difficult?

Managing long term sickness absence can be particularly challenging for employers to handle. There are a number of key reasons for this:

  • Long term absence tends to relate to complex medical issues, and most organisations are not equipped to deal with this as non-medical professionals;
  • The employee can often be absent for a prolonged period of time, and the longer they are off, the harder a return can feel which can make engaging on a return to work tricky; and
  • There are commonly discrimination risks associated with long term health issues as they are usually considered as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

All of this can leave employers hesitant about what they can and can’t do. We have set out below our recommendations for handling this.

What is an Absence Review Meeting?

The first step to managing long term absence is to arrange an absence review meeting. It is best to do this early on in the absence, usually on or around the employee being off for 4 weeks. Even if an employee has been absent for several months, it is not too late to hold an absence review meeting.

The purpose of the meeting is to check in with the employee and how they are progressing with their current health issue. You can use this as an opportunity to explore when the employee is likely to be able to return to work, and what you can do to support them such as making reasonable adjustments e.g. amended hours, light duties etc.

Holding regular absence review meetings with the employee throughout their absence is important. An absent employee can be a burden for any business as it puts pressure on other staff and impacts on productivity, but it is also a stressful and worrying time for the employee – just opening up a dialogue rather than leaving someone sitting at home can expediate a return to work. Please see below free resources we have available for you to download. These downloadable templates are here to help employers to navigate absence review meetings:

Download our Template Invite to Absence Review Meeting Letter

Download our Template Absence Review Meeting Guidance

How do I Dismiss an Employee on Long Term Sick Leave?

There is a misconception that if an employee is off sick for long enough that eventually you can send a P45 in the post to “get them off the books”. But this simply isn’t the case. Even where an employee has been off for over a year, there has been little to no recent contact, and they’ve exhausted all their Company and Statutory Sick Pay, this would still be considered as a dismissal in law. Such an action would likely result in a successful claim for automatic unfair dismissal and potentially disability discrimination in an employment tribunal.

We are often asked how to dismiss an employee on long term sick leave without risk. The reality is virtually no dismissal is risk free. Any employee can raise an employment tribunal claim at no cost. Whilst you need 2 years service to make a claim for unfair dismissal, discrimination claims do not have a qualifying service requirement. However, we are able to work closely with our clients seeking a medical dismissal as a last resort to handling a long term absence issue to achieve as safe a dismissal as possible. We work to assess the level of risk and the most sensitive approach to dealing with the situation. This will usually involve guiding you through detailed discussions with the employee on the likelihood of a return, exploring alternatives and seeking medical input from the employee’s medical practitioner or occupational health through to conclusion.

Further Support

If you need help handling a long term sickness absence issue, FD People are here to help. Please contact us by email at enquiries@fdpeople.co.uk or call 0141 221 2984. You may also send us a message via our online form here.

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