Supporting employees during long-term sickness

Photo of a return to work meeting between manager and employee

Providing support to workers claiming long-term sickness benefits will give them the best chance of returning to work.

The number of UK workers claiming long-term sickness benefits is increasing. Here, our HR and employment law specialist gives some insights into the key issues employers should be aware of.

The level of long-term sickness in the UK workforce has reached record levels and is compounding the skills shortage that businesses are already facing, according to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

The number of people out of work due to long-term sickness has reached 2.55M, says the May 2023 labour-market report from ONS, at the same time as the number of employees on payrolls fell for the first time in two years.

The ONS figures show that 438,042 more people were not looking for work from January to March 2023 than in the same period in 2022, due to long-term sickness.

Businesses are also experiencing increasing numbers of employees on their payrolls claiming long-term sick leave, according to Dawn Smith, senior employment-law and HR consultant with NatWest Mentor. “Currently, one in five calls we receive are from clients to get advice on employee absence due to illness,” she says. “Many of the cases are as a result of mental health issues and some are long-term-Covid related.”

How can businesses manage long-term sickness?

Seeking sound HR and legal advice early in the process, and building a consistent, company-wide policy for handling employee sickness are the keys to success, says Dawn.

“Employers have a duty to deal with long-term illness proactively and should try to help the employee get back to work.”

Dawn Smith, Senior Employment law and HR Consultant

Providing the proper help and support to the worker claiming long-term sickness is not only crucial to a successful return to work, but might also be required by law, she says.

“Don’t assume that once an employee’s statutory sick pay runs out, they will leave the company, or that it’s within an employer’s rights to end their employment,” says Dawn.

Further steps employers can take

  • Set up regular return-to-work meetings for all absences
  • Offer to consult the employee’s doctor or occupational health for more information
  • Provide mental-health first aid or refer to an employee assistance programme
  • Be open to changing the person’s job and making reasonable adjustments
  • Consider offering flexible or part-time work and phased returns
  • Manage absence where employees hit trigger points

There can be financial implications for businesses with one or more employees claiming long-term sickness, as it’s often difficult or not cost-effective to hire a contractor or agency worker to fill in temporarily.

In the current recruitment landscape, many contractors are looking for longer-term employment and the current skills shortage is making this easier for them to find.

“Even if you can find a replacement, it puts additional financial strain on the business because you’ll be paying sick pay to the employee as well as the additional cost of the contractor or putting pressure on existing employees to do extra work,” says Dawn.

Another point to consider is whether the sick worker has a disability, as defined in the Equality Act of 2010. If so, there’s a duty to look at whether reasonable adjustments could be made to their role to accommodate them, and whether there’s suitable alternative employment available.

“I’ve seen employees move to completely different departments and roles within companies very successfully,” says Dawn. “A change of role, with agreement, can also be a good way of reducing workplace stress that may have contributed to the long-term absence in the first place.”

It’s important to follow the correct steps

If, having completed the return-to-work procedures, there still isn’t a resolution, an employer may ultimately look to terminate the worker’s employment.

However, every situation is different, says Dawn, and if the employee has an illness with a protected characteristic, such as cancer or long-term mental health issues, their rights could be protected by law.

“It’s very important that the correct steps are followed, but I’d advise businesses to treat everyone with a long-term health problem through the same process as for disability, as defined by policy. It’s just good practice, and will ultimately result in the best chance of a successful outcome.” says Dawn.

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