Ten key steps for formulating a long-term sickness absence policy

Employee sickness absence poses a significant business cost – an average of £522 per employee per year according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Robust policies that ensure companies understand why employees are off work, when they will return and how managers should deal with incidents of absence are essential. Furthermore, they ensure absence is managed in a consistent and supportive manner and can help minimise the risk of discrimination or unfair dismissal claims.

In cases of long-term sickness absence – generally considered to be those lasting 28 days or more – this becomes even more important. The following guide outlines some of the key steps to developing a long-term sickness absence policy.

1. Establish objectives and responsibilities

Companies will invariably seek to balance supporting employees during their recovery from illness or injury with minimising the impact of absence on business operations and the bottom line.

The policy should clarify this, along with who is responsible and the duties facing both managers and employees in cases of long-term sickness absence. This would include the process of acquiring appropriate medical advice and how to deal with cases that relate to pregnancy or disability.

Furthermore, in consultation with employment law specialists, the policy should outline the circumstances under which a company may consider dismissing an employee who is on long-term sick leave.

2. A note from the doctor

Employees whose are absent from work for more than seven days (including bank holidays and weekends) should be required to provide a doctor’s certificate from their GP or a hospital doctor. This fit note certificate will often be referred to as a Statement of Fitness for Work.

If an employee will not be returning to work after the end date stipulated by the fit note, another fit note will be required.

The company’s legal obligations, under the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 and the Data Protection Act 1998, should also be made clear. These require employees’ consent for medical reports from doctors or occupational health physicians to be shared with an employer. Requests for consent should be in writing. Confidentially and data security are also paramount.

3. Specify when OH referrals will take place

The policy should stipulate the point at which a referral to an occupational health professional is made. This, for example, may be when the employee has been absence for a duration of four weeks or presents with a ‘red flag’ condition such as mental health.

Consideration may be given to referring employees who have been off work, or expect to be off work, for four weeks or more to the government’s Fit for Work service. With their consent, this service will help develop a return to work plan and determine the support that employees may require during this process.

4. Stay in touch

Regular contact and consultation between employer and employee is an essential element of any successful return to work plan, although it is important to strike the right balance.

If contact is made too often, some staff may feel they are being pressured to return to work too early. However, infrequent communication can cause others to feel undervalued or out of touch.

A sickness absence policy can be used to formalise a company’s approach, monthly contact agreed with the employee in advance, for example.

5. Schedule formal review meetings

A schedule for formal review meetings with employees on long-term sickness absence should be set out in the policy. These reviews should focus on the employee’s recovery process, their wellbeing, capabilities, and what support can be offered.

They might be scheduled to take place at 28 days, for example, and then every three months. A final formal review meeting might be then scheduled in cases where employees have been off for 12 months.

The right of employees to appeal warnings or dismissals should also be detailed in the policy.

6. Clarify sick pay and holiday entitlement

Employees may be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) – the government’s minimum level of pay, payable on the fourth consecutive day of absence – for up to 28 weeks.

Some companies, however, may choose to offer more via an occupational sick pay scheme and this should be stipulated in the company’s sickness absence policy, along with employees’ own employment contracts. Policy details should include the precise duration of the entitlement and how much will be paid.

The company’s rules on occupational sick pay should be clear and adhered to consistently to avoid any potential discrimination claims.

The policy should also clarify that employees can continue accruing annual leave during a period of sickness absence and that they’re entitled to carry their leave forward to the following year.

7. Return to work interviews

Following a period of absence, return to work interviews should be conducted where employees are given the chance to raise any issues which require ongoing support and employers can discuss how best to integrate them back into the workforce.

These private and confidential interviews should be mandated in the policy and should ideally take place before employees’ return to work. If this is not possible, they should be conducted on the employees’ first day back.

8. A phased return

A phased return to work may be beneficial for members of staff who are concerned about how they will cope with the transition back into working life. The policy should outline the circumstances under which a phased return might be adopted.

It should also set out how a structured process of gradually building up to normal working hours will be agreed with employees, in consultation with Occupational Health professionals where necessary.

In addition, the policy might explain how a framework of flexible working can be agreed. This might include irregular hours or home working. This can allow employees to fulfil their obligations while fitting in ongoing treatment or simply working in a safe and comfortable environment.

9. A modified role

In some case, staff intending to return to work may no longer be able to conduct their job in the same manner as they did previously. Adjustments may be required.

The policy should be clear on how possible job modifications would be identified by an employee’s line manager and agreed upon with the employee. This should be reviewed regularly to assess suitability.

In some cases, redeployment may be needed as a short-term measure during an employee’s recovery. In others, it may be a permanent arrangement, so it is crucial for the policy to outline this process. This would include assessing the suitability of the new role, discussing any impact on contractual terms and conditions and offering the necessary training or support.

10. Disability or terminal illness

In cases where an employee has become disabled, the policy should make it clear that the employer is legally obliged under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to enable that employee to continue working.

The policy should also outline the company’s approach should employees be diagnosed with a terminal illness, including how they are accommodated and supported in the workplace.

Furthermore, the policy should also detail the circumstances under which ill-health retirement is considered and the process that should be followed, including the administering of pension scheme entitlements.

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