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Managing successful returns to work after sickness absence

Managing sickness absence is never easy, and for small businesses its impact can be even more significant – particularly when the employee is suffering from a long-term illness. Of course, the end goal is always to enable the affected employee to make a successful return work.

Many employers skirt around the issue of how to ‘manage’ this return, due to both the emotional and practical implications. But avoiding the issue is neither in the best interest of the business or the employee.

In fact, management behaviour is key to its success and in some cases a return to work may even form part of an employee’s rehabilitation – with evidence showing that the longer people are off sick the less likely they are to make a successful return to work.

Therefore it is important to have a conversation about how best you can support the employee in their return as soon as is practicable, rather than allowing an individual to become increasingly alienated at home – which can cause further deterioration. This means:

• Engaging with your Occupational Health representative (if you have one) as soon as possible.

• Staying in touch regularly with the individual while they are off sick

• Reassuring them that their job is safe.

• Preventing them from rushing back to work before they are ready

• Asking the individual’s permission to keep the team informed on their return to work.

• Holding regular meetings with the employee to discuss the their condition and the possible impact on their work.

• Consider offering professional support (Employee Assistance/ counselling) – but bear in mind that this will set a precedence.

If the condition is likely to have a substantial impact on the employee’s day-to-day activities (e.g. for at least 12 months) this may then be classed as a disability rather than a sickness. In which case the Equality Act comes info effect, which means that employers must make reasonable adjustments, which might include:

  • temporary or permanent adjustment of duties or redeployment e.g. to give lighter duties or remove requirement to drive or travel.
  • temporary or permanent adjustment to hours to attend medical appointments.
  • phased return to work – which should be time limited with clear targets, with regular progress meetings to identify and remedy any issues as soon as possible.

These adjustments can help the individual to adjust to the workplace at a appropriate pace, gradually building back up to their full duties and normal working hours within an agreed timescale.

‘Reasonable adjustments’ depend on the role – while employers are under an obligation to consider whether work can be reorganised so an employee’s duties or hours can be adjusted, they are not under a duty to create an entirely new role for a disabled employee.

It is important that employees feel supported and secure at all times – but even more so when they are dealing with an illness. Having an established policy on how your organisation deals with long-term sickness and returns to work will help to give everyone that much needed clarity.

For support with all aspects of absence management, including return to work and the development of policies and procedures, contact us on 01229 615 280 or email for a FREE consultation.

“There is evidence to suggest that good HR practice and people management in SMEs are key factors in strong business performance and can lead to increased productivity.”

- CIPD people Skills Project 2017


01229 821270
Turnstone HR
3, Dane Avenue
Cumbria LA14 4JS

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