DEALING with staff absence is a common challenge in healthcare practice today, with UK employees taking an average of 4.1 sick days in 2017. During this year, sickness absence rates stood at 1.7 per cent for the private sector and 2.6 per cent for the public sector. Health workers had the highest rates in the public sector at 3.3 per cent.
Employees who have been on long-term sick leave may be advised to return to work on a phased plan. This can allow an employee to get back to work at an earlier stage of their recovery by providing adjustments, such as reduced hours and/or modified duties. In this way an employee can gradually build back up to their normal routine. A phased return may not be required by all employees, even if they have been on a long period of absence.
Recommendations regarding a phased return can be made by a GP or an occupational health (OH) provider but these are for guidance only and employers do not need to accommodate such requests. That said, a practice will need to be mindful about the legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments in disability cases.
There is no set timescale on how long a phased return should last, but the norm is usually between four to six weeks, with an agreed plan setting out how the phased return will work, how the hours will be built up and over what period.
One question often asked on our advice line is what the employee should be paid during a phased return. There is no legal obligation to pay an employee for their full hours, only for the hours they are working.
However, the practice may want to consider this as it will want to encourage the employee to return to work rather than remaining off and getting full contractual sick pay. Consider offering full pay for a week or two, or maybe discussing taking holidays that have accrued.
This way the employee will be using accrued annual leave and can still receive their full pay during the phased return to work. It also has the benefit of the employee not then being left with too much annual leave to take later in the year.
It is worth highlighting that an employee will continue to accrue annual leave during their sickness absence. If it is during the current holiday year, annual leave will accrue at the employee’s normal contractual rate. Holidays only accrue at four weeks if it is in the previous holiday year.
With regards to pay during a phased return, it is also important to check the absence policy in case it refers to this situation. If it is not mentioned in the policy, consider what the practice has done previously with regard to other employees during phased returns. If it is common practice to pay an employee for any hours not worked throughout a phased return then it is important that all employees are treated fairly and consistently.
The practice should meet with the employee prior to their return to work to discuss and agree the detail of the phased return plan. The plan should include details of both parties’ agreed expectations, including any amended duties, reduced hours, gradual increase in worked hours and over what time period. Review dates should be established, along with the date by which it is anticipated that the employee would have returned to their normal hours and duties. The agreed plan should then be followed up in writing to the employee.
Once the employee has returned to work, it is important to regularly review how things are going so the plan can be assessed and anything further done to support the employee to remain at work.
In dealing with a phased return:
- Consider if a phased return is suitable.
- Consider if further medical information needs to be sought from a GP/OH.
- Arrange a meeting to discuss the details with the employee.
- Consider any suggestions the employee may have.
- Consider if there is a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments.
- Record the details of any meetings and phased return plans.
- Consider what the employee will be paid.
- Set review times.
Liz Symon is an employment law adviser at MDDUS