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Sickness Absence: What are my responsibilities as an employer

As an employer dealing with long term sickness absence and frequent absences, you have a variety of legal responsibilities. Several laws are relevant when managing sick leave and return to work, such as the Equality Act, the Employment Rights Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act.  Employees are more likely to return to work safely and productively following long-term sickness absence if they are well supported during their absence and on their return. 

Policies and Procedures

Employers should have policies and procedures for managing sick leave and these should be developed in consultation with employees and employee representatives.  Having clear and transparent policies about managing absence ensures people know what to expect and that they are treated consistently and fairly.  Employers can make adjustments to standard processes for managing absence when their employee has a long term condition which places them at higher risk of absence than their peers and this ensures compliance with the disability terms of the Equality Act 2010.  Recording and monitoring sick leave can help an employer to identify any trends or to manage risks if appropriate.      

The Fit Note

When a doctor issues a fit note, they may indicate that the employee is not fit to work for a certain period of time, in which case fit note provides evidence for sick pay procedures and a copy can be kept with the employee’s records.  The doctor could assess that the employee may be fit to work, and in these circumstances, the employer can speak to the employee to determine any changes at work which could help them to return.  There is no requirement to make changes and if the employer is unable to make the changes which would facilitate the return to work, the fit note can still be used as evidence for sick pay purposes, but by making adjustments, the duration of absence may be reduced. 

Supporting an employee during absence

Maintaining regular but sensitive contact with an employee while they are absent from work can help reduce feelings of isolation from work.  Contact should focus on their health, safety and wellbeing.  In some circumstances an employer can offer services such as an employee assistance program (EAP) with counselling, or physiotherapy, which could aid recovery and reduce length of absence.  The contact with the employee should also involve planning their return to work when this is appropriate, with support if required.  Occupational health referral could be considered to gain advice on fitness for work and adjustments to support an employee when they return to work.  The referral can help to facilitate an earlier return and subsequent sustained attendance at work. 

Return to work after long term absence

It is a good idea to an employer and employee to meet prior to the employee returning to work.  The employee should be told about any updates at work which have occurred during their absence and any concerns or support needs identified by the employee should be explored.  If adjustments have been requested by the employee or advised by occupational health or a GP, these should be discussed.  If there has not already been a referral to occupational health, and there is any uncertainty about fitness for work or suitable support, then referral may be appropriate at this stage.  This will help to clarify suitable adjustments and justification for these, and ensures compliance with the disability terms of the Equality Act 2010 

By Linda Brown, Senior Occupational Health Advisor at Staywell Occupational Health


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