Most small businesses will have to deal with an employee being off sick for an extended period at some point, and knowing how much (if at all!) to stay in touch with someone can feel like a bit of a minefield.
It may feel easier to ‘leave them alone’, and this can be genuinely what a manager thinks is best, on the basis someone who is off sick will prefer not to be ‘bothered’ by work. But it is important to retain contact with someone who is absent for the following reasons:
Increase the chances of return
Being away from the workplace, even the virtual workplace, creates a ‘distance’ between the employee and employer, which can in turn develop the prospect of returning into a psychological hurdle. The greater that obstacle is (depending of course on the nature of the medical condition), the less likely someone is to feel able to overcome it. Maintaining a connection with your absent employee will make them more likely to feel able to return.
Of course, sometimes it may well be that because of an employee’s absence record, you might feel it’s actually better for the business if they don’t return. But if they don’t return and the reason is at least partly because you ignored them while they were off sick, you could be vulnerable to a claim of constructive dismissal even though you didn’t choose to dismiss them for capability.
Return more likely to succeed
The ideal scenario is usually that your employee recovers from their illness, returns to work and all goes back to normal in terms of performance and absence levels. But the return to work for a long-term absentee is a risky point in this process and it can easily fail, through people coming back too soon, finding it too difficult, not being supported during that transition, or not having any kind of phased return making a physical or mental health lapse more likely. If you’ve engaged with the employee throughout, they will feel more confident that they will be welcomed back, and you will be in a better position to identify easily what support they need.
Engagement with a formal process
Sometimes you need to start a formal process of some kind when managing a long-term absentee. This might be a capability process where you feel the chances of the person returning are slim and you need to end their employment, or it might be a process where you are exploring adjustments and support necessary for a possible return, or it could be both. Regardless of where your formal process ends up, it is a worrying time for any employee, as they are often worried about losing their job, or suspicious that any kind of formal process is leading down that path.
If you have maintained a good level of supportive contact throughout the absence, trust levels will be much higher, which means the employee will be far more likely to engage willingly with any process of seeking advice from Occupational Health or similar, or even with formal hearings as they are more likely to trust that the outcome of the process will be fair, and the process conducted sensitively and appropriately.
If the reason someone is absent is related to work, particularly work-related stress, you may need to approach the subject of suitable contact more sensitively in terms of frequency or who makes the contact, but stopping all contact is rarely sensible and is likely to make future options more limited and less likely to be successful.
If you need further advice on supporting employees whilst they are on long term sick leave, do get in touch.