What is long-term sick leave – and how can your HR team manage it?

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Lizzie Buxton

4th September 2018

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Workplace absence has increased year-on-year since 2011, now costing UK businesses £18 billion annually – and long-term sickness is a key part of that.

Worse, long-term sickness doesn’t just affect a business’ bottom line; there’s also the impact on other employees, who often have to work harder to cover for missing colleagues.

But what, exactly, is long-term leave? And how should you handle it in your organisation?

What counts as long-term sickness depends on who you ask. According to the UK government, an absence longer than four weeks is counted as long-term sickness – but the CIPD suggests anything more than eight consecutive days counts as long-term.

The fact is, it’s up to you to decide on a reasonable threshold that suits your business.

The most important thing is to have a clear, fair sickness policy in place, that covers both short- and long-term absences (and the difference between them) – and that’s well understood by both your HR team and your employees.

Getting your people back to work

The best-case scenario is for your employee to get back to work as soon as possible.

The CIPD’s recommendation represents the minimum amount of time off that can be considered long-term, as employees aren’t legally required to present proof of their illness until they’ve been off for seven days. After seven days, including non-working days, your employee needs to provide a doctor’s note from a GP or hospital.

As well as providing proof, the note will give you an indication of if and when they’ll be ready to return to work. In some cases, you might be able to adjust your employee’s working environment to help them ease back into their role more quickly. For example, if they’re usually in an active role and have broken their leg, could they temporarily shift to desk-based tasks while they recuperate?

Understanding – and communicating – your people’s entitlements

Whether your organisation offers basic statutory sick pay – paid at a flat rate for up to 28 weeks – or a more generous entitlement, it’s important to strike a balance between encouraging employees back to work and being fair and supportive.

However long your employee is off work, their annual leave entitlement shouldn’t be affected. In fact, if they had holiday booked during their absence, you’ll need to make sure they get the opportunity to take that time off at a different point in the year. If you don’t, you could find you’ve an unnecessary tribunal claim on your hands.

Similarly, don’t forget that long-term absence due to pregnancy or existing disabilities shouldn’t be counted as sickness – this could easily be viewed as discrimination under the 2010 Equality Act.

Supporting long-term needs

If your employee has a life-changing injury or illness, you’ll need to change their working conditions to support their new needs. This is known as ‘reasonable adjustments’. This could include working from home, reducing their weekly hours, or improving accessibility in their environment.

For some employees, it won’t be possible to accommodate their needs in their original role, so you’ll need to try and find them a different position within the business. If there’s nowhere else to place them, and they’re old enough and entitled to a pay-out, it might be worth considering retirement.

You may also need to support an employee after a terminal diagnosis – each person’s needs are going to be different here, so you’ll want to work with them to ensure the right accommodations and financial support.

While this will obviously be a difficult time for the individual, it’s also important to consider the impact on others in the organisation – and give everybody the support they need, when they need it.

Dismissing absent employees

Under some circumstances, you can dismiss employees that are on long-term sick leave – but only if you can prove you’ve made the required reasonable adjustments to try and accommodate them coming back to work.

You’ll need to check if their illness is likely to improve before you begin the dismissal process. To this end, you might want to include a clause in your sickness policy that gives you permission to contact your employee’s GP, and get the information you need to support them effectively, and dismiss them safely if that’s the best possible outcome.

Occasionally, you may be concerned that an employee is prolonging their absence deliberately – if this is the case, we’d recommend consulting with occupational health about how best to deal with the situation.

Reducing workplace absence

With research suggesting sickness absence is on the up – and predicting that the £18 billion in annual lost productivity will grow to £26 billion by 2030 – now is a great time to review your policies.

To learn more about how absence can affect your business, and how to reduce the cost of dealing with it, download our quick guide to Proactive Absence Management.

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