Key Learnings

  • Set timeframes for yourself and for the employee
  • Maintain regular communication throughout their absence
  • Get external medical advice, if required, from Occupational Health or the employee's GP
  • Follow procedures and address issues early to help maintain your control of the situation

Paula Fisher, founder of online HR management platform YourHR.Space shares her expertise on where SME owners stand when handling an employee's long-term absence.

Understandably, lots of business owners are unsure of how to deal with the tricky situation when someone is off long-term sick, especially within a small team. These can be difficult and sensitive situations and we all want to be good, compassionate employers. After all, it is not the individual’s fault that they are unable to attend work.

But it is also common for bosses, and especially smaller business owners, to think that there is nothing they can do about the situation, apart from wait for the employee to return to work.

However, this is not the case as it is important to consider the needs of the business as well as the impact the absence has on others. While sounding harsh, if an employee is not capable of performing their job role or an available alternative, there will come a point when the company can – and possibly must – fairly bring their employment to an end, providing the right procedure is followed.

The key to managing long term sickness is to have a clear procedure in place and to address the situation fairly and consistently.

So, what needs to be done?

Remember it’s good to talk! So, keep in touch with the employee. Your policy should set out how this is likely to work.

It’s tempting to want to give your employee as much space as possible but the worst thing you can do is to do nothing and have no contact for weeks or months. It is a fact that the longer you go without contact the more difficult it becomes for someone to return.

Plus, the more time goes on, the more difficult it becomes to justify how the absence is having a detrimental impact on your business. For example, if you have coped for 12 months, the thinking might be that surely you can cope for another six months!

It’s important that you set a timeframe in which you will start to make more enquiries. Such as, if an employee is or is likely to be off for a period of four weeks or more it’s a good idea to begin gathering more information.

External Advice

You can get information and support from medical experts. Remember that as an employer you are not a medical expert and you are likely to be criticised (or worse) for dismissing someone without first having obtained a medical opinion as part of your procedure. This may be Occupational Health, which would be preferable, or a report from the employee’s GP or other health professional. If you have got a medical report, discuss this with the individual as part of your process.

Importantly, by following a fair procedure, you may be able to help your employee return to work and this will generally be the best outcome for both parties. When it is clear – through medical opinion – that they may not be able to return to work within a reasonable timeframe or possibly at all, you can follow a formal capability procedure to consider terminating their employment.

If you don’t have an in-house HR consultant, it is always advisable to seek professional advice before taking formal action and certainly before dismissing an employee for incapacity.

Yet, what if you find yourself in the position when you believe that someone’s absence is not genuine or they are malingering? Following a clear procedure, and addressing the matter early, will allow you to reach these decisions earlier and deal with them.

Many employers feel out of control when having to deal with long-term sickness situation. This does not have to be the case. If addressed early and appropriately it will keep you in control and alleviate some of the frustration and awkwardness that can come with having to deal with these difficult and often highly sensitive situations.

Contributed by Paula Fisher
Ashleigh Smith
Article by Ashleigh Smith
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