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Long-term sickness is a period of continuous absence lasting four weeks or more. Managers often need clarification on what support they are required to offer those absent on long term sick or what steps they should reasonably take to manage the situation of long term absence.
It is important to establish if an employee's absence is linked to an ongoing health condition or disability. If that is the case, you may need to consider making 'reasonable adjustments' under the Equality Act 2010 to support the employee with their condition before taking any formal action. This alone could aid a successful return to work.
Where reasonable adjustments are not enough to aid a return to work, it is important that initially, the employer keeps in touch with the employee on a regular basis. Depending on the circumstances, you may keep in touch weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. The timing of long term absence catch-up calls should be agreed with the employee.
Once you have established how often you will contact the employee whilst they remain on sick leave, you need to know the information you need to discuss. Below are examples of questions to ask.
Remember, document everything and confirm in writing any discussions with the employee.
It's important to remember that treating everyone the same does not mean everyone is treated fairly. The Disability Discrimination Act requires people to be treated differently according to their needs by making reasonable adjustments.
Reasonable adjustments are specific to an individual person and may include any of the following.
Where an employer has kept in regular contact with an employee and has not been able to establish any prospect of return in a reasonable time frame, it may be appropriate to further investigate their absence or illness by requesting a medical report from their GP. This is so that the employer can obtain further information regarding the reason for the employee's absence and obtain additional guidance as to if or when they may be fit to resume their job duties in the future.
Whilst there is no set amount of time an employer should wait before accessing an employee's medical records, we recommend that you consider accessing medical records for sustained periods of absence of 12 weeks or more.
However, this is a flexible recommendation, and timing will need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Before accessing employees' medical records, it's important to remember that there is a legal requirement to obtain their consent. Only if consent is granted will the Company be able to write to the employee's GP requesting a medical report.
There are many reasons for requesting a report. It can be as simple as a prognosis for a straightforward injury or an assessment of a likely return to work date. The report should contain only the information required for you, the employer, to fulfil your legal responsibilities. If the employee has any health condition, you may only need to know:
Remember, personal information should be handled with the strictest confidence and, as such, is covered by the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
You may wish to ask questions such as:
Depending on the recommendations made by the employees' doctor or consultant, you may also consider a referral to occupational health.
Where a Doctors report will provide specific information in respect of their employee's condition, if any reasonable adjustments can be made, and their likelihood of return, an occupational health assessment will make more specific recommendations as to what adjustments could be considered to facilitate an employee's return to work, if any.
Occupational Health Management Referrals follow the following format.
Referral – this can be done remotely or as an assessment on site.
Once you have both a doctor's report and/or an Occupational Health Assessment, it's time to sit down with the employee to discuss their content.
This could range from discussing and agreeing to adjustments recommended in the reports to facilitate a return to work or if both reports are such that they state there are no reasonable adjustments that can be put in place and that the employee is unlikely to return to work now or in the near future. You may need to consider termination through medical capability.
If adjustments can be made, we recommend that the employee receive a letter to cover what was discussed during the meeting and confirm any adjustments the employer has put in place.
If no adjustments can be made and there is no likely return to work, then the employee should be invited to a long-term incapacity meeting which may result in the termination of their employment on medical grounds.
Whilst the above information is a short synopsis of the processes for managing long-term absence, we strongly advise you to consult your HR Advisor or seek professional advice before considering any potential dismissal.
Article by Richard Naylor, HR Advisor
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