Managing absence: when to get in touch with employees on sick leave

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Lizzie Buxton

17th September 2018

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You have an employee who’s off sick, and you’re thinking about contacting them. Maybe it’s just a quick question – like where a document is saved, or who’s involved with the project they’re working on – but should you really be getting in touch with them at all?

A time for recovery

Sick leave is, after all, a time for recovery. If you’re contacting your employee about work, are you really giving them time to recover? Especially when finding an answer might be even more difficult, with less or no access to work systems and files?

The short answer is this: almost certainly not. Even if you think the employee in question has pulled a sickie, it’s worth remembering that 42% of people do this simply in order to have a day of rest. If your staff are so stressed or run down they’re feigning illness, leaving them in peace for the day is even more imperative – and a better outcome for everyone than a prolonged period of absence.

And in today’s tech-driven, ‘always-on’ work cultures, it’s not just employers who are failing to respect crucial recovery time: 52% of employees admit answering work emails when they’re out sick or on holiday.

Given this mounting pressure to be on call 24/7, it’s hardly surprising three out of ten sick days are now due to mental health conditions.

So, what should your protocol be for contacting your employees when they’re out sick?

Establish when you’ll check in

Obviously, you need to know why your employee is off work – but it’s unwise to quiz them when they first let you know. No one likes feeling like they are being interrogated, and some people may be sensitive about sharing details of their illness if it’s embarrassing or life-changing.

If the absence is likely to be longer than a few days, establish early on how often you’ll get in touch. This should be frequently enough that you have a good idea of how they’re getting on and when they might return to work.

“If they’re likely to be off sick for longer than a week, it’s reasonable to contact them once or twice a week,” says Pat Ashworth, Director of Learning Solutions. “As an employer you have the right to do so, and maintaining regular contact actually accelerates the rate of returning to work.”

Getting them back to work

Staying in contact while your employee’s off will also give you the opportunity to identify any adjustments you might need to make to the workplace to help them return more quickly.

You’ll also want to assure them that work with set deadlines has been passed on to another member of the team, so that they don’t feel pressured to return early.

Once your employee’s had the chance to recover, set up a face-to-face meeting in a private space – even offsite, if that works best. That way, you can discuss their absence in a low-stress environment, and understand why they were off, how you can help them ease back into work, and whether it’s likely they’ll need more time off in the future.

“You want to make sure the employee is well enough to return and doesn’t feel stressed about it. The only way you’re going to do that is by communicating clearly,” explains Pat.

How much is too much?

It’s vital that you ensure any communication you have with your employee is helpful and supportive – now isn’t the time to flag concerns about performance, ask questions about their work, or discuss their absence’s effect on the business.

Putting unnecessary pressure on your employee will likely increase their stress, and it might prolong their absence. If they feel like they’re damaging the business by taking sick leave, they might come back to work before they’re ready. Not only is that going to lead to low productivity on their part – you may also risk them making others ill.

When to tread especially carefully

It’s particularly important to understand the boundaries of contacting your employees in the case of serious illness or mental health-related absences. Take the example, reported by Personnel Today, of an employee who was signed off work with depression and anxiety as the result of intimidation and bullying by her manager and another director in the company.

While on sick leave she was contacted twice by the organisation’s chief executive. Despite the employee responding to the first letter to explain she was in ‘no fit state to communicate without breaking down’, the chief executive sent a further letter a month later, discussing concerns about her work performance. Ultimately, this led to the employee resigning and filing a tribunal claim which was, unsurprisingly, settled in her favour.

The golden rule

If you take just one thing away from this blog, it should be this: don’t contact an employee who is on sick leave, unless it’s purely to help them, and aid their return to work.

To help you avoid contacting employees too much – or not enough – ensure your sickness policy clearly outlines your organisation’s approach to communications, and that everyone’s up-to-speed.

Do you need help understanding absence in your organisation? Contact us to see how we can help, and download our free eBook for a detailed discussion on the topic of absenteeism. 

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