Group risk: Strategies for managing long-term absence

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Maintaining regular contact with an absent employee can improve their chances of returning to work.
  • Employers should consider actions as for an employee on maternity leave, such as catch-up meetings and sending newsletters.
  • Determining an appropriate level of contact with an absent employee should be a key part of an employer’s sickness absence management strategy.
  • Group income protection providers can help employers support employees back to work.


Case study: Communication of group risk benefits is key for publisher

Publishing firm Random House has about 1,000 staff in the UK. Although it has a group income protection (GIP) policy in place, group HR director Neil Morrison hopes most absentees can be supported back into work before it kicks in.

“The GIP insurers help where there are potential claims, but we also provide a lot of support with rehabilitation ourselves,” he says. “This can help an employee back into work but, for it to be effective, it has to be supported by good communication.”

As soon as it becomes clear that an employee will be absent for a long period, Random House’s HR team is informed. “We work with the employee and line manager to ensure the relationship is managed,” says Morrison. “It is easy to forget about communicating with an employee when they are not in the office, but if you let this happen, it can build up barriers.”

Communication is tailored to the employee, rather than structured around a formal process. “Communication could be led by the line manager, a senior manager or someone in HR depending on what relationships are in place,” says Morrison. “If you push someone into a formal process, they can feel disengaged, so we always try to ensure the communication has the right tone.”

Case study: Capital One wins credit with employee support strategy

Keeping its 1,000 UK staff healthy and in work is important to credit card company Capital One. Karen Bowes, HR director at Capital One, says: “The majority of our employees are aged between 30 and 45, when career and family pressures can make stress a key concern. Because of this, we have developed initiatives to support our staff and make them more resilient.”

A key part of this is the support it gives based on the Human Givens approach, which derives from the Human Givens Institute, the membership body for psychology professionals that provides its own framework which members can use to better understand the causes of stress and mental illness.

Bowes explains: “This can really help staff who recognise they are suffering from stress. By identifying the triggers that cause the stress, a plan can be put in place to help them manage it. This has had a significant effect on long-term absence: none of the employees referred for support have become long-term sick.”

But Bowes recognises that there will always be staff for whom these mechanisms are insufficient. To support these employees, Capital One has a group income protection (GIP) policy and rehabilitation services provided by Unum.

“It’s a safety net,” says Bowes. “As soon as it becomes apparent that someone will be off work long-term, we work with the insurer to ensure, where possible, that they are given the best chance of returning to work.”

The approach is personalised, involving the employee, the company and the insurer working together to look at options. “It is managed very proactively,” says Bowes. “We don’t forget about them: we want them to return to work if they can.”

The longer an employee is off sick, the less likely they are to return to work, so employers need a strategy to keep in touch and offer continuing support, says Sam Barrett

The relentless demands of running a business can easily result in employers forgetting about staff who are off work on long-term sick leave. This is a dangerous oversight, because keeping communication channels open with absent employees can make the difference between them returning to work and never working again.

Studies have found that the longer someone is off work, the lower the probability of them returning. A study published in 2003 by the British Society of Rehabilitation Medicine, Vocational rehabilitation: the way forward, said the probability of an employee returning to work after six months’ absence was 50%, after one year 25% and after two years practically zero, hence the need for communication. But it is not easy.

Chris Ford, director of group risk at Jelf Employee Benefits, says: “If someone is off on a sabbatical or on maternity leave, no one thinks twice about contacting them, but there is a stigma associated with long-term illness that makes employers unwilling to engage with it.

“Employers should be asking questions and seeing how they can support the employee as early as possible in the absence. This makes them more receptive to treatment and the possibility of returning of work.”

Employers also need to be mindful of the stress involved in returning to work, which can often exacerbate an employee’s long-term sickness absence issues. Louise Flowers, head of risk and wellbeing at Lorica Employee Benefits, says: “Even after maternity leave, it can be traumatic going back into the workplace. Processes may have changed and [employees] can worry [they are] not up to speed. This can be even worse if you have been off work sick.”

Vocational rehabilitation services

Group income protection (GIP) providers can help employers to improve their absence management procedures by offering vocational rehabilitation services, which typically involve early intervention in an absence to help the employee return to work and good-quality case management for those in need of professional support, such as physiotherapy.

Jelf’s Ford recommends adopting some of the measures used when an employee is on maternity leave. “Send them newsletters and contact them regularly so they don’t lose touch with the workplace,” he says. “This will make it easier for them to come back when they are well.”

A less easy task is determining who is responsible for communicating with absent employees. Declan White, head of group protection strategy and marketing at Friends Life, says: “This usually depends on the company and the processes in place. Typically it is the employee’s line manager and/or the HR department that need to be responsible for dialogue with the employee.”

Steve Bridger, head of group risk at Aviva UK Health, says the company works with all parties involved in helping an employee back to work, including line managers. “We engage and offer support to the line manager in these cases. It helps to make it work,” he says.

Line manager intervention

But asking line managers to take on this responsibility can be difficult because they may feel uncomfortable about talking to an employee about their health. And in some cases, line manager intervention could be inappropriate. Mike Blake, compliance director at PMI Health Group, says: “If the line manager is responsible for the employee being off work with stress, then the last thing you want is for them to call the employee. [The employer] has to have a common-sense approach that overrides any policies in place.”

Determining the frequency of contact with an absent employee is an essential part of an employer’s sickness absence management programme, but it can be hard to decide what is appropriate. Lorica’s Flowers suggests asking the employee. “It will often depend on the condition,” she says. “For instance, if someone is undergoing a course of chemotherapy, they might prefer to be left alone until it is completed, but, by asking, it shows you care and want to support them.

“Don’t be afraid to contact them. If you don’t and they disappear over the horizon, it is very difficult to bring them back.”

Read more articles from the Employee Benefits group risk supplement 2012