Everything you need to know about long term sick leave, but were too afraid to ask

Beth Brierley, solicitor with Riverview Solicitors, explains everthing you need to know about handling sick employees.

by Beth Brierley
Last Updated: 11 Jan 2019

It's a difficult issue: you want to be supportive of an employee's need for recovery time but your business still needs to function. This summer the government’s Fit for Work Service will produce recommendations aimed at reducing the £3bn British businesses lose every year to sick leave. Here's everything you need to know about the proposed changes, and how to manage employee sickness in your business.

Calculate the financial cost
Firstly, employees are not entitled to receive full pay, unless they have enhanced sick pay benefits. Statutory Sick Pay is currently £86.70 per week which an employer has to pay for up to 28 weeks, maybe more if you have an additional sick pay scheme.

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Keep proper records
Generally absences under seven days can be self-certified. When an employee returns to work conduct an interview that allows you to discuss reasons for the absence and any further support. This may help you identify and prevent short-term illnesses turning into long term absences.

It also sends out a clear message to employees that you take sick leave seriously.  You can also assess whether there is an underlying medical condition connected to the employee’s absence.

You must keep a record of any absences as it may help you identify any patterns and will enable you to determine when statutory sick pay and/or company sick pay have been exhausted, so that the correct adjustment to salary can be made.

Understand the fit note
After seven days (including non-working days) a doctor's statement of fitness for work (known as a fit note) is required. A fit note will state either that the employee is not fit for work, or that the employee may be fit for work, taking into account the doctor's suggestions about ways to help them return, such as: a phased return; altered hours; amended duties; and/or workplace adaptations.

You are not duty bound to follow the advice given in the fit note, however it would be advisable to follow such advice. Discuss the advice with the employee and take account of any industry specific health and safety regulations that the doctor may be unaware of.

Confirm any agreed temporary arrangements to the employee in writing, including the dates when they apply. If you are unable to provide the support suggested by the employee's doctor, explain the reasons for this to the employee and treat the employee as being unfit for work. The employee does not need to return to their doctor for a new fit note to certify this.

Manage the long-term situation
Where an employee's absence has become long-term, it is important to maintain regular contact in order to review their progress. The employee should keep you informed of any developments in their treatment and recovery. Maintaining regular contact will not only reassure the employee, but will prevent the situation from drifting. They should feel that you are sympathetic to their situation, but that you are also monitoring it closely.

If the problem is not resolved and it looks as though the absence will continue, with no indication of a likely return date, you should inform the employee that their absence is under review and that you will need to obtain a medical report, with their written authority.

The outcome of your investigation, and any medical report, will indicate how to proceed. You must consider any reasonable adjustments you could make to work arrangements that may enable them to return, especially if the employee is suffering from a disability.

Your aim should always be to facilitate the employee's return to work. Where, after proper investigation of all the issues and alternatives, concerns about the employee's absence cannot be resolved, you may consider dismissal or action short of dismissal (such as demotion). Ill health is a potentially fair reason for dismissal, if it relates to the capability of the employee to do the work they were employed to do.

Managing current workload
Finally, while an employee is away from work you should consider whether existing employees can cover the sick employee’s workload or whether you need to recruit additional staff. This will often depend on whether you have an indication of how long the employee is likely to be on long term sick leave and also their job role within your business. 

Beth Brierley is a solicitor with Riverview Solicitors

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