When an employee is on long-term sickness absence, one of the real risks that needs to be managed is a common feeling of isolation, which can inhibit recovery and make returning to work a much bigger emotional and mental hurdle than it might otherwise be.
Work brings a certain degree of social contact and a sense of self-worth and value. Not being able to work can damage a person’s self-esteem as they do not feel they are contributing to their team, and very often long term sickness absentees spend a large portion of the working day alone, as family members are taking part in their own normal working week activities.
It’s important for an employer to take positive steps to ensure the employee knows their team is interested in their well-being, and that support is available from the employer.
Depending on the nature of the condition the employee is absent with, it is reasonable and sensible to maintain contact with them during their absence. This can feel like a bit of a minefield, as managers worry about being perceived as harassing or pressuring an absent employee. Persistent unwanted contact can certainly damage relationships and risk complaints, however the key is “unwanted”. For most employees a degree of contact is helpful in reducing the sense of isolation, feeling part of the team still and making returning to work less daunting.
It’s therefore best to ask the employee themselves what level and type of contact they would prefer. Some would like regular updates on what’s happening with the team, and perhaps contact with other team members as well as their manager, while some would prefer a complete break from work and only essential contact via letter.
Similarly, for some people home visits or meetings at a neutral location on an occasional basis would be helpful and appropriate, whilst others would prefer not to see anyone from work at all unless absolutely necessary.
You could consider inviting the employee to work social events if you feel they would be receptive of that, and obviously if they would be physically able to attend. For some, it’s important to be considered and remember for this type of thing, even if attending would be impossible or too difficult for them.
Keeping in touch personally also enables you to more easily monitor the employee’s progress with their health and give a better picture of when they might be able to return to work, which helps with planning cover arrangements and allocating work elsewhere.
Returning to work after long term sickness absence is always a big step and can feel daunting and overwhelming, but if the employee has been made to feel very much still part of the team while absent, this hurdle will be much easier to overcome, and their return to work is more likely to be successful.
If you would like more advice on avoiding the problems that long-term sickness absence can bring do get in touch.