Seven ways to get on the front foot with long-term sickness absence

Peter Clark explains why HR professionals and line managers no longer need to be alone when it comes to the ethics, practicalities and legal minefields of dealing with long-term sick and injured staff.

One of the biggest management challenges is long term sickness absence.  HR teams are usually reliant on what they are told by the employee’s GP, which is often scant, and communications can break down, leaving management unsure of what to do.

Even with traditional occupational health reports, most managers flounder on the ethics, practicalities and legal minefields of long-term sick and injured staff.

As an occupational therapist, specialising in absence management, my day-job is about assessing fitness for work and putting individuals on recovery plans that accelerate their return to work, which should be straightforward.

Yet repeatedly we see employers with sizeable case-loads of staff off work for weeks, months and longer, who struggle to establish what the problem is and if and when staff will ever resume duty.

The Office for National Statistics reported 49.4 million working days lost through musculoskeletal problems, stress, depression and anxiety in 2015.   The EEF estimated in 2016 that 2.5 million working days are lost to long-term sickness absence each year, with companies reporting increases in sickness absence.

Absence is a problem that escalates over time.  Fewer than 50 per cent of people out of work for more than six months ever return to work.   People can become almost institutionalised into being unwell.  Long-term absence can cripple confidence and physical injuries can trigger depression, stress and anxiety.

When staff are off sick for longer than about a month, a fear of dealing with them and of flouting the Disability Discrimination Act often creates a form of management paralysis, though structure and action is the fair, ethical route.

Here are my top seven rules to create some of that structure.

Keep communications open.  Employers need to conduct regular return-to-work meetings to meet the strictures of the Equality Act, should dismissal be the final option.  But phone and Skype can be used, and home visits are not unreasonable.  We often meet people at their favourite cafe.  Discuss their health assessment findings and talk about modified job-roles, adapted environments and possible return to work dates, offering plans to assist when they return.

Be unafraid to talk with staff facing depression, stress or anxiety.  Many managers feel it is ‘too much’ to pick up the phone in such cases, when in fact long silences can exacerbate mental health issues.

Expand your knowledge base of the condition an individual is coping with.   Knowing what it is like to suffer with irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia, will give you a better feel for how it may progress, and how one adapts to it.

Any rehabilitation should be built into a mutually agreed plan.  Treatments like physiotherapy or talking therapies should be offered so staff approve plan and schedule, and line-managers approve their own roles.  If home exercises and sleep hygiene are in the plan, they should form part of timetabled goals.

During a phased return to work be honest about required duties.  Do not molly-coddle staff with conspicuously light duties.  Make reasonable adjustments – a requirement if they are now classed as disabled - with a goal-oriented approach.

Do not presume how conditions affect job-performance.  Everyone is different, so let individuals set the pace to a degree, and work on motivation.
Avoid over-medicalising.  Remain positive and optimistic and handle workplace changes in days or a week at a time, not months.  Set expectations and avoid creating a mindset which fosters absence.

Pete Clark is Head of Corporate and Public Sector Service Development at HCML and a qualified occupational therapist.