Vicki Field: How to manage employees on long-term sick leave

Vicki Field

Misconduct is generally straightforward; employees did something wrong and deserve the consequences. But being ill? And possibly losing their job as a result? HR is the the one making the decision, or advising on it, and it can be hard to work out the best approach that balances the needs of the employer and the employee. Being prepared, using a capability process, having as much information as possible and engaging with the employee throughout each stage is key.

Long-term absence has two outcomes: a return to work or a dismissal. The only way to determine which is most likely is to get a good medical report. The best report covers the details of the illness, likely prognosis, treatment and timescale for any return to work, as well as clarifying any tasks that the employee may be able to do. It should also include any reasonable adjustments to working arrangements that could be made to assist the employee, and also, crucially, if it might be considered to be a disability.

Most HR professionals have struggled with a decent report, and there is advice about ‘asking the right questions’. It is also important to ask questions of the right medical professional, who understands the purpose of the report and can provide practical guidance in a way which is easily understood by the employer and the employee.

Using a capability process, with clear steps at each stage, helps the organisation and the employee to understand exactly what is likely to happen, which can help remove some of the anxiety and allow both parties to plan. Keep communication open with the employee, and consult with them throughout the process. Obtaining their views on their health and whether or not they could return, and over what time-scales, helps an employer to meet the test of ‘reasonableness’ if it does become a dismissal situation.

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Supporting someone back into work is the final challenge. The doctor’s report can help provide guidance about whether or not adjustments should be made, and if a phased return is required, as well as the side effects of any drugs or treatments that the employee may be taking. The organisation can look at the practicalities of re-inducting the employee into work, which might include sharing organisation updates, ensuring they have work to do but are not overloaded, and welcoming them back into their team.

Vicki Field is HR director at London Doctors Clinic