Managing Long-term Sickness Absence
Despite popular misconception, management of short-term and long-term sickness absenteeism requires different approaches, despite presenting similar challenges for employers.
Taking a hold of the situation
Long-term absenteeism cases are a sensitive issue, especially those where employers eventually become wary of dealing with the long-term absentees due to a fear of doing the worst. Even though such cases must be handled sensitively, letting the situation drift indefinitely makes it further difficult to resolve and thus harder to act at a later date. In case of long-term absence, assessment of regular review of the individual is absolutely critical in order to ascertain its impact on both the individual and the immediate reporting managers as well as the business. Contact, though, must be constantly kept with the employee to inquire of his/her health.
Abiding by policy
It is imperative to check a company’s sickness leave policy and abide by the steps listed therein, before formally acknowledging to any absence management. This is to ensure the fairness of the management process.
Understanding the prognosis
In general, long-term absence cases require greater investigation into medical aspects than short-term absence cases. The employer must understand the true medical position and particulars like illness cycle / period, time required by the employee to become fit enough to return to work, necessity of any reasonable workplace adjustments required by the employee or not, and so on.
The employer must be able to obtain and understand the medical evidence purporting to answer these questions, which may include reports from the employee’s doctor or a company-sponsored health check-up sanctioned by the employee’s contract.
It is pertinent to add here that the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 must be followed, which includes:
- making an employee aware about their rights
- obtaining the employee’s written consent to have himself / herself examined and observations recorded in a report
- presenting the employee the report before the employer
- giving the employee an opportunity to request any changes in the report
Consulting with the employee
It is recommended that, during and after long-term absence, an employee should consult with the employer and consider the availability of an alternate employment in case the employer has decided that it is unreasonable to keep the position open any longer.
In cases of long-term absence, it is well established that, as well as getting the up to date medical position, an employer should:
The employers can and should also discuss with the employee the possibility of their return to previous job with / without adjustments, availability of suitable alternatives roles, and so on. Employee’s ideas should be considered before the employer conclusively decides the alternatives or adjustments if possible. As per ethics, the possibility of an employee’s return to work must be thoroughly explored. In case of the scenario of a possible return to work, the terms and dynamics of the programme should be discussed and met with agreement.
The employee’s job role, nature of illness, the size of the employer’s organisation, etc. are some of the crucial factors that decide that how long an employer may reasonably wait for the employee to return to work. Also, factors like the cause of the absence, the employee’s treatment plan and the likely date of return should also be considered. For all intensive purposes, the employer should reasonably wait for the outcome before making any decisions regarding the employee.
In case a foreseeable return to work cannot be mandated, or the employee cannot return despite adjustments, then dismissal on grounds of capability can be considered. This is especially important if the employee’s prolonged absenteeism has caused genuine difficulties for the employer. This requires a clear, sympathetic discussion with the employee.
The employer should try to balance his position with that of the employee. For example, the employer can assist the employee in obtaining a permanent insurance or an ill-health pension, in case the latter qualifies for one, and then only take a decision on the dismissal. Generally, an employee cannot be dismissed on capability grounds while under the benefit of permanent health insurance or a similar scheme.
In case of a lack of options, the employee should be invited to a formal meeting wherein the situation is made clear to him / her before seeking final views on the matter before reaching a decision. The potential outcome of the meeting should be forewarned to employee. All relevant employee details, such as period of absence, effect of absenteeism on business, medical evidences in support of the employee and any adjustments already considered, etc., must be made aware to the employee.
The employee must be able to put his/her case with ease at the meeting. Emergence of any new information must be investigated further before taking a decision. It is important to note that dismissal of any kind shall be mandated on notice and in some specific circumstances the employee may be entitled to full pay during the notice period irrespective of the terms of sick pay entitlements.
Being wary of potential risks
- Medical conditions causing long term absence can be deemed disabilities in the legal sense. Therefore employers should therefore take care to make any reasonable adjustments enabling the employee to return to work in the foreseeable future, or else risk breaching the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. Employers should also be aware of other potential disability related discrimination claims and their implications.
- Even though capability is a potentially fair reason for to dismiss an employee, following a fair procedure is unquestionably mandated and all alternatives to dismissal are thoroughly considered to avoid an unfair dismissal.
- A case of an employee being dismissed while still entitled to or in receipt of Company sick pay shall be deemed unfair.
- Availability of permanent health insurance schemes can bar a dismissal due to capability