When a member of your team goes off sick and the absence becomes prolonged, how to manage the sickness absence can seem unstructured for managers as there aren’t specific ‘trigger points’ to prompt (or justify) taking action.
Also, often policies and procedures state that an employee can be absent from work for four weeks before a more formal HR process kicks in, which feels like a mighty long time! Yet managers feel they ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do anything before then. Then, when the fourth week rolls around – it feels rather formal and ‘unfeeling’.
Here’s a few tips on how managers can keep their finger on the pulse of an ever-evolving long term sickness absence and overcome these challenges. Please share them with your team!
Managing Sickness Absence by Keeping in Touch
First up, managers can tailor their approach based on the information that the employee initially provided when they first went off sick.
If the duration of the fit note or the nature of the injury/illness makes it clear that the absence is likely to be longer than a week, then put in a regular schedule of informal catch ups. Once a week or so will do the trick.
Manage Around Relevant Milestones
Then, at key milestones during the absence managers can follow up with a more structured review of the case. These milestones can be at any significant point in the absence, for example when a fit note is due to expire, after an appointment with a consultant or before sick pay is due to end (or reduce).
If the fourth week formal meeting appears in amongst these meetings, it will feel far less ‘out of the blue’.
Have a Clear Focus for the Meetings
Managers should ensure the focus of these meetings is to explore when and how the employee could return to work. For more detail, there is a great video course which specifically covers how to plan and handle these meetings.
It is easy for an ‘absence review meeting’ to get stuck in a rut of focusing on how things are right now. Always ask ‘so what’, as in ‘so in light of what we know, what could be done to support a return to work?’
It’s important to note here that there will always be exceptional circumstances, such as cases of terminal illness or conditions which require management through more limited contact. Medical and HR advice will help a manager to determine whether they are dealing with one of those exceptional circumstances.
Be Clear when and how a Manager can Consider Ending the Employee’s Employment
Managers will find it helpful to know ‘the plan’ if, despite everyone’s best efforts, a return to work in a reasonable timeframe is not feasible. That’s despite the fact that in most cases the meetings which take place during the sickness absence will result in a solid plan for the employee’s return to work.
When the nature of the illness/injury means that return to work is unlikely within a reasonable timeframe despite reasonable adjustments, an employer is entitled to take steps to consider ending an employee’s employment.
The manager dealing with this will want to ensure that this decision is made fairly, and with dignity and respect.
First, managers should consider whether the medical situation has settled down and can be described as in ‘a steady state’. A ‘steady state’ can be:
- After recuperation from the initial treatment from a recently diagnosed condition and once any ongoing medication or therapy has become a stable routine
- Or, if the employee has been managing their condition for some time but there has been a change (perhaps an alteration in the prescribed medication, or symptoms have worsened), and this change has caused the absence; once the ‘new normal’ has become understood: In other words how the employee now needs to manage their condition in the light of this latest development..
Second, if it has been clear from the milestone meetings that the medical situation means that an amended or alternative role can’t be achieved or identified, then it may be time to consider ending the employment. Even if there is such a role but the medical situation means the route to get there can’t be achieved with certainty or can’t be taken in a reasonable timeframe.
At this stage, organise a formal meeting. Managers will need to write to the employee to invite them to attend and make it clear to the employee that the organisation is considering bringing their employment to an end. During the meeting, look backwards over the way that the absence has been managed, as well as looking forwards to confirm everyone’s understanding of the likely future picture before any decisions are made.
For more support for managers in handling this type of meeting with confidence and skill, take a look at 10 to 3’s managing absence courses. They break down the entirety of this process into manageable chunks of digital learning.