How should you manage long term absence?

Do you have any cases of long term absence in your company? If so, what steps are you taking to manage it? Maybe you don’t have any employees off right now. But are you confident that you’d know how to manage the situation if someone did go off for a long period of time?

It can be a difficult balance to strike. On one hand you’re morally and legally obliged to look after the health and wellbeing of your employees. There are very few employers who wouldn’t want to support an employee who’s genuinely going through a difficult time because of health problems. But on the other hand, you have to make sure that you are looking after your business too. And you must also be mindful of the impact on all of your other employees.

The problems caused by long term absence

The knock-on impact of a long term absence can be significant. Potentially it can affect productivity, morale, financial health, and overall operational efficiency in your company.

There could be project delays. The quality of products or services might be affected by the absence of a key person. That could harm customer satisfaction as well. Your business might need to pay for someone to come in to provide cover. Not only do you have that cost (plus possibly the cost of recruiting them); you might also need to cover the costs of training them up in the specifics of the role.

Or it might be that the absent employee’s colleagues find themselves having to shoulder more work if they have some knowledge of the role. That might be okay initially to provide immediate cover. But realistically it’s not very sustainable on a longer-term basis. It could lead to burnout and stress, increasing the risk of others going off too. Long term absence can also be unsettling for colleagues, causing uncertainly and anxiety and hitting morale.

So how should you handle long term absence?

The primary aim will always be to proactively support an employee who is struggling because of their health and help them return to work. And this is where having robust absence management policies and procedures is absolutely essential. They’ll help with exploring options, and making sure you’re acting fairly and doing everything that can reasonably be expected of you as an employer.

Be aware of the legal definition of disability

When considering what to do about someone who’s off on long term absence, it’s essential to be aware of whether the reason for their absence could be defined as a disability.

The Equality Act 2010 sets out the definition of disability. At its simplest level, it’s a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

So what does that mean? It includes a broad range of conditions including physical disabilities, sensory impairments, mental health conditions and progressive conditions. Substantial effect means the impact must be more than minor or trivial so certain everyday tasks (like getting dressed, interacting with others or walking) are more difficult for someone compared to if they didn’t have the condition.

In most cases the impairment must have lasted (or is likely to last) at least 12 months. Even if treatment or medical aids have made the condition more manageable, the focus is on the underlying condition and its potential impact if wasn’t treated or managed.

Understanding your obligation to make reasonable adjustments

The law is very clear that employers must make what are referred to as reasonable adjustments to accommodate any employee who has a disability. Examples of reasonable adjustments are:

  • Modifying workstations
  • Providing additional equipment to support an employee in their role
  • Offering flexibility over working patterns, hours and locations.

Exactly what is reasonable does vary according to the size of employer. If an adjustment can easily be made by most employers with virtually no cost or disruption, it would be likely to be deemed reasonable and expected of all sizes of employers. A larger employer, with more resources at their disposal, would be expected to do more to accommodate an employee (investing in specific equipment or arranging redeployment for example).

Effective policies and procedures are vital

In some cases, it might become apparent that it simply is not possible to facilitate a return. That could mean you find yourself having to consider an ill-health dismissal on the grounds of capability.

But you must tread very carefully here. Once again, your polices and procedures are key. Are they up to date and fully compliant with employment law? They must be robust enough to help you understand the practicalities of how to properly manage the situation. And are you confident that you and your managers understand how to apply them correctly? It doesn’t matter what stage you are at in managing a long term absence. If policies and procedures are applied inconsistently or incorrectly, it’ll create a substantial risk to your business. That could ultimately lead to tribunals and costly discrimination claims.

Speak to us if you need support

Is managing long term absence an issue in your business? Perhaps you’re unsure whether your current policies and procedures would be adequate. Then talk to us. We can advise you on what you need to have in place, support you with creating robust policies and procedures and provide advice about what steps you need to take to correctly manage an employee on long term absence. There are a number of different HR services that we provide so please don’t hesitate to get in touch to talk through how we can best support you.

absence, employee absence, long term absence

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