Managing Long Term Sickness and Preventing Sickness Absence

Posted on 3rd July 2014

Following on from my June blog about managing short term employee absence, this blog looks at managing long term sickness and also how as an employer you can try and prevent or at least minimise sickness absence in your business. The management of long-term sickness is very different to short-term, for many reasons. As a definition, most businesses define long-term sickness as 4 working weeks or longer. This can be for many reasons: planned operations, diagnosed illnesses, sudden serious illnesses or accidents. The ‘easiest’ of these to manage is planned absence, often for surgery. If as a business you encourage employees to be open and honest with their health then you will get warning of this and can plan for it in terms of cover and communication to key stakeholders such as clients and suppliers. It is also easier as, fortunately for the employee, there is the anticipation of a definite return, so less uncertainty for both parties and nothing that good planning cannot manage. The harder aspect of managing long-term sickness is when it is not expected, or starts as short term and then becomes long term due to a diagnosis. The causes of this can be many but sadly the most common are stress-related illness, cancers and back problems (amongst many others). The difficulty in managing these cases comes from two aspects: • The very human aspect that they are a valued employee that people have a relationship with and so there is the obvious emotional impact of knowing that a colleague is very ill • That it can be very unclear how long an absence is likely to last, whether the employee will be able to do their role when they return and, of course, if they will be able to return at all. Of course every long-term case will be different, due to the individual, the cause of the absence, their role and the resources of the business available to support and manage the case. One of the key tools in managing long-term absence can be the involvement of an occupational health professional, not just the employee’s GP or consultant. An occupational health adviser will be able to offer opinion, advice and options to both parties; something that as a business owner you are not qualified to do. They will also be able to make a judgement – that a tribunal would rely on – as to whether someone’s absence is or could be classed as a disability for the purpose of the Equality Act. If the answer to this is yes, then how you manage it becomes a bit more complex. Ultimately, a business does not have to continue employing someone indefinitely who is not able to work, but you need to manage the situation, communicate effectively and be open minded as to the options. As an employer, surely you want to help someone to return if they can but statistics from the Department of Health show that if someone has been off sick for 6 months or longer they have an 80% chance of being off work for 5 years (Waddell and Burton 2006), so starting a process early is essential. And, scarily enough, research from the Department for Work and Pensions shows that, after being off work/out of work for 2 years, people are more likely to die or retire than return to work. Ways of preventing absence As the saying goes, “prevention is better than cure” and this is very true with absence in a business. No business will ever have no absences, we’re all human after all. Equally, you do not want to achieve 100% attendance via people being so scared of calling in sick that they come in when they shouldn’t and infect the rest of the team. So what makes the difference between an employee who is feeling a bit rough one day with a cough and cold but makes the decision to come in, and the employee who sneezes once and calls in sick for the rest of the week? Very often the answer lies in how engaged that person is with the business they are working in. Do they have genuine belief in what the business does, want to do their best for their manager and clients and not let their team down? This is what is known as employee engagement (what I have discussed in a similar article on this site) and is what makes a business really thrive. To get an engaged workforce takes a lot of work but is worth the effort in terms of the results it will deliver. There is a huge amount of research in this area, and I wrote a whole MA dissertation on it, but the basics are making sure that people feel valued by an organisation, believe in it and have a say in how it operates. This is delivered through excellent communication and line management. If someone knows they are missed when they are away and communication is maintained at the right level, they are much more likely to come back and feel a valued part of the team. The employee who is off for months with a serious illness and gets no communication, no best wishes and no support is not going to feel particularly valued or want to give their all when they come back. Other options for prevention of absence is to really look at the jobs that people are employed to do and how they do them. The number one cause of absence in the UK is stress, so are the type of roles and the expectations of them likely to cause stress to your employees? If so, then perhaps you need to look at these roles and how they can be designed or managed better to reduce this risk. Very often people can be quite cynical about a diagnosis of stress but it really can be debilitating for both the employee and the business. Stress can be caused by many factors and as an employer you cannot have much of an influence on what goes on outside of work, but you can try to ensure that working for you does not cause an individual undue stress. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has undertaken lots of research in this area and outlined the 6 main causes of stress at work as: demands, control, support, role, relationships and change. To find out more have a look at You can also look at the working environment; is this a “healthy” place to be, either physically or mentally? Physically could be what is expected of people that could cause injury or safety risks. Mentally may be in terms of the emotional or mental energy needed to do the job. An example from my own experience of this would be working in mental health nursing with very challenging behaviours; if a member of staff had to be with that person for long periods then this could have an impact on their mental health. A solution to this is to put in rostering within a shift to share this duty and also to ensure appropriate support is available for the staff if needed. Employee benefits can also be used as a preventative measure. Some of these are known as wellness initiatives that encourage your teams to have a healthy lifestyle and therefore less likely to become unwell. Examples of this would be corporate gym memberships, cycle to work schemes or fruit at work instead of vending machines full of chocolate! Private healthcare can also be a great investment as employees feel valued for this investment and they are usually treated quicker and therefore hopefully return to work sooner. It is surprising the options available for this benefit, some of which are a lot more affordable than you would think. The main intention behind this article was to get you thinking about whether valuable resources are going to waste in your business by not managing staff absence. The problem is often that businesses do not realise that there is a problem with absence until it causes tangible issues in the business, and by then it takes much longer to resolve, hence wasting even more time and money. By taking a more proactive approach both in terms of having the policies and processes there before you need them, and trying to prevent absence in the first place, your business can protect itself better. Note: Due to the nature of the complexities of employment law, I would like to say that, whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information provided here, nothing in this article should be relied on as a statement of absolute fact. This is especially true of any legal information. The law is constantly changing so please do take advice before managing absence. I cannot accept any responsibility for any harm or loss caused, directly or indirectly, as a result of the use of this article.

Emma Wynne Character
Written by:
Emma Wynne
Managing Director