How to get on the front foot with long-term sickness absence

6 Sep 2017 By Pete Clark

Pete Clark shares his tips to make returning to work as stress-free as possible

One of HR’s biggest challenges is long-term sickness absence. Employers are usually left relying on what they are told by the employee’s GP, which is often scant. Even with traditional occupational health reports, most managers flounder on the ethics, practicalities and legal minefields of long-term sick and injured staff.

As an occupational therapist specialising in absence management, my day job is about assessing fitness for work and putting individuals on recovery plans that accelerate their return to work, which should be straightforward. Yet I repeatedly see employers with sizeable caseloads of staff off work for weeks, months or longer, struggling to establish what the problem is and when – or even if – the employees will be able to resume duty.

The Office for National Statistics reported that, in 2016, 46.6 million working days were lost through musculoskeletal problems and mental ill-health issues, such as stress, depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, last year the EEF estimated that 2.5 million working days were lost to long-term sickness absence each year, with companies reporting increases in sickness absence.

Absence is a problem that escalates over time. People can become almost institutionalised into being unwell. Long-term absence can cripple confidence and physical injuries can trigger depression, stress and anxiety.

When staff are off sick for longer than about a month, a form of management paralysis can take hold, usually because individuals worry about discrimination laws or the right way to liaise with sick staff. The fair, ethical and effective route is to create action and structure.

Here are my top seven tips to build some of that structure.

1. Keep communications open. Employers need to conduct regular return-to-work meetings to meet the strictures of the Equality Act, should dismissal be the final option. But phone and Skype can be used and home visits are not unreasonable.  We often meet people at their favourite cafe. Discuss their health assessment findings and talk about modified job roles, adapted environments and possible return-to-work dates, offering plans to assist when they return.

2. Don’t be afraid to talk to staff facing depression, stress or anxiety. Many managers feel it is too much to pick up the phone in such cases, when in fact long silences can exacerbate mental health issues.

3. Expand your knowledge of the condition an individual is coping with. Knowing what it is like to suffer with irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia will give you a better understanding of how it may progress and how one adapts to it.

4. Any rehabilitation should be built into a mutually agreed plan. Treatments like physiotherapy or talking therapies should be offered so that staff approve the plan and schedule and line managers approve their own roles. If home exercises and sleep hygiene are in the plan, they should feature in the timetabled goals.

5. During a phased return to work, be honest about required duties. Do not mollycoddle staff with conspicuously light tasks. Make reasonable adjustments – a requirement if they are now classed as disabled – with a goal-oriented approach.  

6. Do not presume how conditions will affect job performance. Everyone is different, so let the individual set the pace to a degree and work on motivation.

7. Avoid over-medicalising. Remain positive and optimistic and handle workplace changes in days or a week at a time, not months. Set expectations and avoid creating a mindset that fosters absence.

Pete Clark is head of corporate and public sector service development at HCML and a qualified occupational therapist

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