If you have someone who has been absent from work for a long period due to ill health, the chances of them being able to come back as ‘normal’ straightaway are usually pretty slim. Sometimes permanent adjustments are needed, but frequently some adjustment of some kind is more likely to facilitate an earlier return so it’s worth considering what you could modify about their working arrangements and role, even on a temporary basis. You’ll have to make reasonable adjustments where the condition is a disability, but even if it isn’t, adjustments will almost certainly ‘ease the way’.
Seeking medical advice, ideally from an Occupational Health specialist, will help identify what specific adjustments would help the individual concerned, as will talking to them directly about what they feel would be useful. But here are some useful options you can consider.
Look at working hours
Either a short-term ‘phased return’ on fewer hours, or a longer-term or permanent reduction in hours might be possible and might enable your employee to return to work sooner. Have an open mind and engage in discussion with the employee. They might be able to explain how their role could be done in more flexible hours than you may have previously thought.
Consider working location
Can the role be done from home? Or at least partly from home? Removing the need for travel and for attending the workplace can make returning to work a lot more accessible to someone with a health condition or with anxiety about returning after a significant period of time.
Are any physical adjustments possible?
When someone has been off sick for a significant period of time it’s often a disability, and not only are you specifically required to make reasonable adjustments in those circumstances, with many disabilities physical adjustments to the workplace can make a huge difference – possibly specialist equipment or software.
Make the most of creative role design
In a small business there is often not the ability to move people around to different roles as there would be in a larger organisation. But there is frequently scope for more flexibility and creativity with roles, and with how tasks and responsibilities are structured, and for the ability to develop a role around the individual. Doing that is often not a particularly good idea, but in circumstances where you are facing the prospect of losing, or having to dismiss, someone from your business, exploring the possibility of tailoring their role might be worth considering.
Consider the psychological ‘barrier’ of returning to work
An Occupational Health professional will focus on advising you about the person’s capability to perform their role, and on any adjustments that may make that possible. But something else to take into account is that even if someone is completely physically fit, and/or the adjustments needed for them to physically perform the role are fully in place, there will still be a psychological barrier for many employees who have been on long term absence – a concern about whether they’ll be welcomed, what changes have happened in the workplace, and about the unavoidable change in their routine and circumstances.
Offering initiatives such as a ‘buddy’, regular check-ins or other support arrangements can make a big difference, and they might be the kind of thing the employee won’t actively request so will need to be offered proactively.
Taking professional advice will help get adjustments right, but keeping an open mind about what could be at least tried, will increase the chances of an earlier and more successful return for your long-term absentee.
If you need any further advice on what adjustments should be considered if someone is off long-term sick, do get in touch.