A strategy to avoid long-term staff absences

Employers need a clear strategy to deal with employee absence caused by long-term conditions, says Sally Hamilton

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Employers should get in touch with long-term absentees sooner rather than later.
  • Employers could consider work-focused healthcare, involve staff when devising a return-to-work plan and consider a phased return, as well as shorter hours, time off for treatment, homeworking or a different role.
  • Firms could appoint a workplace mentor to bring the returnee up to date and consider using professionals for advice or treatment.
  • They must remember legal aspects, such as the Disability Discrimination Act, and Health and Safety at Work legislation.

If an employee suffers a serious illness or accident, it is not only traumatic for them, but it can also have serious implications for their employer’s business if the absence drags on. Colleagues can develop compassion fatigue if they end up with a heavy workload and employers can get into hot water if they ignore their responsibilities under legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act.

The chances of a long-term absentee never returning to work increase once they have been off for six months, so it makes sense for employers to devise a strategy to get them back before the rot sets in. This might involve early intervention, regular communication, work-focused healthcare and modifications to the employee’s workplace or job.

Cost of losing an employee

Losing an employee carries a large bill, including the cost of a temporary or permanent replacement, and higher healthcare or income protection insurance premiums, if these are offered. Although only 5% of absences become long-term, they account for 40% of all time lost and cost £5.3bn a year, according to the 2008 Confederation of British Industry/Axa Absence Survey.

As well as a system of reporting and monitoring absence, a strategy should include a trigger for line managers or HR to intervene promptly when an employee looks likely to be away for more than four to six weeks.

But it is when employees are suffering from serious conditions that organisations can sometimes slip up, says Helen Sellings, rehabilitation consultant at insurer Canada Life. “Some [employers] are reticent about getting in touch with employees who have suffered an accident, a stroke or have cancer, for fear of appearing to hassle them,” she says. “When we visit the employee, the first thing they might say is ‘I have worked there for 15 years and they have not even contacted me’. So the first thing employers should do is encourage a dialogue.”

Explain monitoring system to staff

Joy Reymond, head of rehabilitation and health management services at Unum, says such misunderstandings can be avoided by explaining the absence monitoring system routinely to all staff. “There will be fewer problems if employees know this contact is normal procedure,” she says.

While employers must take care not to rush an employee back to work prematurely, it is wise to harness any enthusiasm for a speedy return before it evaporates. “People with cancer, for example, often take the warrior approach and want to fight it,” says Reymond. “They are open to offers of absence management and see work as part of their recovery. But there is also a need to acknowledge that this is a life-changing event for them.”

How employers handle absence will depend on the resources available and whether they can tap into in-house occupational health services, or income protection or private medical insurance (PMI) benefits. Some may decide to buy in services ad hoc.

Find a rehabilitation provider

Finding a suitable rehabilitation provider can be tricky, but new standards introduced by the UK Rehabilitation Council in May are designed to help buyers choose wisely. Reymond suggests checking that an employee’s therapies include a work-related component.

Sellings also recommends employers work closely with treatment specialists. “By talking to them, employers can reassure themselves they are doing the right things when making adaptations for an employee,” she says.

Some rehabilitation services, which ultimately prefer to see an employee in work rather than receiving a regular cash payout (possibly until retirement), involve sending a case worker to the employee’s home to assess their recovery potential. Some staff are offered a phased return to work.

Disability Discrimination Act

Employers must also take into account their legal responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act. “They should find out what adjustments or modifications could be made,” says Sellings. “I dealt with a case of a salesman who became paraplegic after a road accident. He was keen to go back to work, so his firm adapted the premises and he returned as one of the sales support team.”

For staff who will never be fit enough to return, employers need to weigh up alternatives, such as ill-health early retirement, a long-term claim on income protection cover, or a financial settlement.

A well-handled rehabilitation process can work well for both sides and send out a message to other staff that they are working for a caring employer. As Reymond concludes: “Having a rehabilitation strategy speaks to the bottom line and the top line.”