Ask the expert: Long-term absence

We have been receiving a high number of calls on the employment law advice line regarding long-term sickness issues. Long-term sickness can cause major disruption in practices, resulting in costs to cover a temporary replacement, as well as affecting morale as colleagues have to pick up extra work for the absent employee.

WE have been receiving a high number of calls on the employment law advice line regarding long-term sickness issues. Long-term sickness can cause major disruption in practices, resulting in costs to cover a temporary replacement, as well as affecting morale as colleagues have to pick up extra work for the absent employee.

One such call we received advised that one of the practice’s long standing receptionists, with 10 years’ service, had been suffering from depression and was on her fifth month of sick leave.

Although the practice were sympathetic to her situation, they were also concerned as to how much longer the employee would be off. The absence was causing a major problem with regards to staffing issues and standards and the practice wanted to know how long the role needed to be kept open.

The employee was sending in her sick lines on a timely basis but the practice had not made any contact with her for a while as they did not want to pry.

Dealing with long-term absence can be difficult for practices and practice managers, as there is a balance required between dealing with the employee’s health whilst managing the needs of the practice.

The starting point for dealing with absence issues is to ensure that the absence policy reflects both short and long-term absence and how each will be dealt with, so that all parties are aware of what the process involves.

It is reasonable is to expect an employee to be in regular contact so that the practice are kept up-to-date on their health and likely return date. The extent of the contact and how this should be done (i.e. by a telephone call and not by text) will be detailed in the policy.

As time progresses, it is advisable to arrange a meeting with the employee to discuss the absence, with the first meeting usually being arranged after the first six weeks of absence. Such a meeting can be done in the practice or at the employee’s home if they prefer and must be handled in a sensitive way.

Sometimes the longer an employee is away from the workplace the more daunting it is to come back and this can be a barrier. If the absence is work related, it is essential that the practice speak to the employee so that any issues can be alleviated.

It is also important with long-term absence cases to ensure you have up-to-date medical or occupational health reports as these help determine the extent of the illness, whether it is a possible disability, the likelihood of a return date and if there are any reasonable adjustments that should be made to the workplace or role to accommodate the employee. The employee must give consent for such a report to be accessed.

The report may suggest the employee would benefit from a phased return back to work and such options available are:

Reduction in hours – this option would be recommended where the employee would benefit from a gradual increase in hours or duties over a period of time. For example, an employee who has undergone surgery or has been off for several months may benefit from returning on reduced hours in the first instance, gradually building up hours over a few weeks.

Altered hours – this would be recommended where the employee would benefit from a change to their hours. This does not necessarily mean fewer hours but a change in work pattern. For example, an employee who may struggle into work during rush-hour traffic could start later and finish earlier allowing travel during quieter times. By considering and allowing flexible hours where possible could support an employee, who is still in the process of receiving treatment, to attend any appointments.

Amended duties – this would be recommended where the employee is able to return to work if their duties are amended. For example, in this situation where the receptionist feels unable to cope with patients in the first instance, reducing or eliminating the more pressured parts of the job can help those who have been suffering from stress.

Work-place adaptions – this option would be recommended where the employee would be able to return to work if the workplace is adapted. For example, if an employee had trouble walking or was immobile, providing them with a ground-floor work station. With long-term absence, it is not expected that a job will be held open for the employee indefinitely but there is a process to go through before a decision to terminate employment due to capability can be taken.

There is also the aspect of the illness being a potential disability, which adds extra responsibilities onto the practice and a risk of a discrimination claim if the correct process is not followed.

Dealing with long-term sickness is a balancing act of being honest and sensitive to the employee whilst still effectively managing the staffing of the practice. We would always recommend you seek advice as this element of the law can be particularly complex.