Managing return to work after long-term sickness absence

Oct 2, 2017 | Time Off Work

If you’ve had an employee off long-term sick, then hopefully at some point you will need to start considering their return-to-work. It’s a daunting prospect for someone who’s been off for a while and it’s important you take time to make sure the return goes as smoothly and successfully as possible.

Here are some key things to consider as you approach the time your absent team member will be returning:

1.  Anxiety and personal support

Most people returning to work after a long period off will feel a bit nervous. Employees may be worried about whether they will cope with the work, what has changed in the workplace that they might find difficult or challenging, and how their colleagues will respond to them/perceive their absence. The anxiousness involved in returning may also be particularly a concern if the reason for absence was a mental health issue.

If they’ve been off with stress, particularly work-related stress, they may be concerned at whether the same situation will arise again.

Make sure you take this into account, and ensure they feel welcome, that their return is being considered a positive thing and that they feel they can approach you with any concerns, problems, or additional support they may need.

You could consider appointing one of their colleagues in a “buddy”-type role so that they have someone keeping an eye on them and available for support.

 2.  Workload and duties

Other than any specific adjustments you may be making to your employee’s duties following a fit note/occupational health recommendation (see below), you should also take some time to consider the employee’s workload. It is unlikely to be at a steady normal level immediately, and there might either be a complete overload of work which hasn’t been covered (or has been inadequately covered) while they’ve been off, or alternatively things have been farmed out and dealt with by others efficiently, meaning the employee returning doesn’t actually have enough to do until things settle back into normal routines.

Make sure your team member has enough to do, that the work is meaningful and is a genuine contribution; that they receive guidance/training on any new systems now in operation; and that things are handed over properly and fully in an appropriate way and at a suitably manageable pace.

3.  Adjustments on return to work

In 2010, the old-style doctor’s sick note was replaced by a statement of fitness for work, called a “fit note”. The fit note system enables and encourages doctors to indicate whether the employee is unfit for any work, or fit for work under some conditions, i.e. with adjustments to responsibilities, hours or other adaptations in the workplace. Doctors may also recommend a phased return, where the employee comes back gradually, increasing hours week-by-week.

This is to help employees return to work more quickly where possible and more successfully.

While employers should take recommendations made on a fit note into consideration, there is no legal obligation to implement the suggested changes. If you can’t accommodate a doctor’s fit note recommendations you should explain this to your employee. As your employee has been certified as being unfit for work unless the changes are made, they will therefore need to stay off sick completely.

If you feel you may be able to accommodate all or some of the suggestions, you should discuss the recommendations with your employee, and if you will be making some changes, put these in writing including timescales for review/return to usual arrangements.

4.  Adjustments for a disability

If the employee has been off long-term sick with a condition which constitutes a disability, you must remember that you are under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments in order to enable the employee to return to work. Therefore recommendations on a fit note should be implemented unless this is not possible, as you may risk a claim of disability discrimination on the basis that you have failed to “make reasonable adjustments”.

5.  Ongoing health issues

Sometimes the employee is completely 100% back to normal, but it may be that there are residual problems or a risk of a relapse. Make sure you explore whether the employee is still taking any medication, for example, and whether there might be side-effects affecting their work.

If you notice your team-member looking tired or unwell, talk to them about it – you don’t want them to be a hero and struggle on if things get too much. It’s better to consider adjustments and support while they are at work rather than them pushing through and ending up going off sick again.

6.  Review

It’s a good idea to plan in regular reviews of the situation during the initial period. Agree support arrangements with your employee, and schedule in regular catch-ups to keep on top of whether the support is sufficient or needs adjusting; whether workload is manageable and whether they are coping with returning.

If you would like more advice on managing an employee’s return to work after long-term sickness absence do get in touch.