Dealing with long-term sicknessWednesday, December 22nd, 2010
Inevitably at some stage every organisation will find that it has an employee who is likely to be or has been on sick leave for a long time. This may present a problem because managers have to balance efficiency with humanity, yet the situation is not difficult to handle if you understand clearly what you need to do.
A first imperative is that you do not immediately think badly of the employee by assuming that he or she has chosen to fall ill or is acting dishonestly. Malingerers there may be, but rarely is anyone in a position to feign illness and to fool both managers and medical practitioners for a long period. Instead you should always assume that the employee is genuinely indisposed unless you have factual evidence for disbelief. If someone falls ill or has an accident that prevents attendance at work, show sympathy, and sustain this if the sickness absence becomes prolonged.
Someone who is away sick for an extended period can feel isolated from the workplace and vulnerable. If they hear nothing from the employer, they may begin to fear that they have been forgotten and will lose their job, a situation that certainly will not aid recovery. Therefore keep in touch with the person. Include him or her in e-mails and newsletters that give an idea of what is happening, and encourage the employee to respond and offer ideas. This keeps the person playing a part in the team and makes a return to normal duties much easier for both parties. However, consider the nature of the ailment and do not, for example, inadvertently put pressure on someone who is suffering from stress. The absent employee should be visited regularly both by medical or personnel management staff and, less formally, by colleagues and the immediate boss. This of course shows concern but also maintains good communications and allows the employer to monitor the person’s progress towards recovery and return to work. The sick employee is likely to be particularly interested in how you are covering the job. Have you recruited someone from an agency? This sounds pretty safe, but if you have recruited directly, does this mean that the sick employee will not have a job to return to when the absence ends? Explain the position in order to stop the person from worrying about job security.
The law expects you to treat sick employees fairly and humanely, though at the same time recognises that you need to run your organisation efficiently. Short term absence due to minor ailments is so common that you are expected to be able to cope with it. Long term absence is, however, a different matter, and courts recognise that, if an employee’s absence has a really serious effect on your business, then you may have to take steps to dismiss. The larger your workforce, the longer you would be expected to keep the person in your employment. And you certainly should not consider dismissing him or her before contractually guaranteed sick pay is exhausted.
If you do decide that you have to take action, the first step is to arrange a discussion with the employee, probably at his or her home. At any meeting you should ensure that the employee is accompanied by a family member or friend. And if you recognise a trade union for the area in which the employee works, you should involve the appropriate union representative. This companion should take notes and be available after you have left to discuss what has been said and help the sick person to make any necessary decisions. Be aware that someone who is sick is not in control of all their faculties and may desperately need this help.
Explain the problem to the employee – you are sympathetic but cannot keep the job open or sustain the temporary arrangements indefinitely. Obviously this must be said with tact and handled with consideration for the sick person. The employee may be able to indicate a date when he or she expects to return to work, in which case your problem is no more. But otherwise ask for permission to contact the person’s doctor for a medical report. You need to obtain this permission in writing and explain to the employee that he or she has the right to refuse, but in that case you will have to make your own assessment of the person’s capability and likelihood of early return. If you do get written permission, explain that the employee will have the right to see the doctor’s report, to ask for it to be changed, and to refuse to have it sent to the employer. Then write to the doctor explaining that the employee’s absence is causing you problems, describe his or her duties and what they entail, such as “heavy lifting” or “dealing with angry customers” or “sitting at a keyboard”, and ask first when the doctor expects the person to be fit enough to return to these duties, and second what you might be able to do to expedite an early return. Ask also if the sickness absence is likely to last for twelve months or more because, if it does, the employee may be protected by the Disability Discrimination Act. You will need to enclose the employee’s permission for this report to be made, and indicate that you expect to pay for it.
Discuss the doctor’s report with the employee. Hopefully it will indicate a reasonably early return to work date, in which case you should talk about the steps you could take to make return easier. For example you may suggest that the employee return part time for a couple of weeks, or may feel it necessary to provide some physical assistance such as a more comfortable chair or give retraining. If however the doctor is unable to give an early return date, then you may have to consider moving towards dismissal. Don’t beat about the bush. Explain to the employee the difficulties you are having and that you therefore cannot continue sick leave indefinitely. Arrange another meeting for, say, four weeks’ time and make clear to the person that at that meeting you may well have to consider terminating his or her employment. To emphasise the situation, confirm this message in writing, being sure to give a copy to any appropriate trade union representative.
Sometimes this understanding spurs the employee to greater efforts towards recovery or just brings the reality of his or her situation to the surface. Whatever, sometimes there is a flight into health, and your problem is resolved. But if at your next meeting there is still no sign of an early return to work, then you are entitled to give the employee notice of dismissal on grounds of incapability. Although the person will be unable to work the notice period you will nevertheless have to make payment for it.
But pause for a moment and think. Calculate the cost of making this notice payment and compare the result with the cost of keeping the employee on the books. You may find it better all round to keep the person in employment and deal with any problem arising on his or her return at that time. You could for example explain that you are not dismissing, though cannot guarantee that the person will be able to return to the old job on his or her return. If it appears that the person is suffering from a terminal condition, look at the financial options and have a discreet discussion with a close family member. Dismissal may deprive the sick employee of a life assurance benefit, conversely the family may welcome a lump sum notice payment.
Do not shy away from dealing with long term sickness absence. Both parties have needs and rights and there is no conflict between acting as a manager and as a human being. Good managers meet all their obligations in a humane way, and dealing with the long term sick is a good measure of their professionalism.