Managing the return to work from long-term sickness absence

Wednesday February 21, 2024

If one of your team is unfortunate enough to be off long term on sickness absence, they will have their own challenges to deal with; but, as you may have experienced firsthand, it can be a very challenging time for the business too.  We usually define long-term absence as a minimum of four weeks.

In the UK, the financial cost of long-term sickness absence is a staggering £100bn per year. And then there is the strain it puts on the rest of the team to consider too.

So when they return, you want to get them up to speed as fast as is practicable. Sensitivity is required though, and each return to work will depend on the nature of the absence. Some people may never be able to return to their full role.

There is a process you can follow to manage a return to work. This will give you a structure that you can apply to any situation.


1. Stay in touch during the absence

Staying in touch with someone absent for a long period of time is a good technique for helping them feel valued by you, and reassured that they are still part of your plans. At the start you can agree what level of information they are happy for you to share with colleagues about their absence, show concern and encourage them to prioritise their well-being.

You can let them know you will put a plan in place for their workload while they are away, reshare your sickness policies (including pay), and signpost any support that may be available; be that directly from you, via one of your employee benefits or perhaps a third party like a charity.

Over the course of the absence you can check in from time to time, depending on what seems appropriate to the situation.


2. Planning for the return to work

Think about the needs of your business, but also the employee’s situation – you’ll need to find a balance.  GP fit notes often recommend a phased return without thinking about the financial implications for the employee. You do not have to pay full time for part time work. Or they may recommend light duties without understanding the nature of the work.

We recommend considering and discussing with the employee all the options: an immediate full return, a phased return where the hours build up over a period of time, permanent reduced hours, modified roles, say not operating certain machinery due to injury, or a flexible approach guided by regular check-ins.

When it comes to pay and any other terms, be guided by your policies and ensure everyone is treated equally. Consider Occupational Health, particularly if a phased return or light duties are being discussed. Make sure you and the employee are in agreement about the plan.


3. Welcoming them back

Give them a warm welcome to ensure the return gets off to the best start, introducing any new colleagues and allowing a bit of space for them to catch up with the team. They will all be relieved that things are heading back to normal.

A 121 to get them going and keep an eye on any reasonable adjustments that become obvious is a good idea, and as their first week and even month progresses, keep checking in.


4. Longer term support

A long-term sickness absence may be a one-off, say due to an injury that they’ll completely recover from, or it may be related to a longer-term condition.

If it is a longer-term condition, you’ll need to maintain open and honest communication about their health, whether it may be classed as a disability, and capability and work ability issues. If you need support to ensure you handle such issues sensitively, pragmatically and in line with employment law we can help.


Find out more

If you want to ensure you have policies in place that position your business well to cope with long-term sickness absence or you have a live case you need help with, please get in touch.

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