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How to manage recurring sickness absence

The annual cost of sickness absence has climbed to almost £29 billion for UK organisations, according to a study published recently by the CIPD. Vocational rehabilitation consultant Katya Halsall offers advice on how to manage this costly problem

As a vocational rehabilitation consultant with more than 10 years of experience, I am often asked by HR practitioners and line managers to provide advice and guidance on managing sickness absence. It seems that one of the most common problems is recurring sickness absence.

Those in charge of managing workplace absence frequently tell me about a dilemma they are facing. On the one hand, they do not wish to appear 'too pushy', pressurising the absent individual to return to work too soon. This often results in an unnecessary dramatic increase of the length of the sickness absence, as well as in recurring absences.

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On the other hand, HR practitioners and line managers may be sceptical about the reasons for absence or possibly too eager to engage the individual in the return to work process.

As a result, the absent employee may feel no one cares, taking even more time off work as sick leave, or they may feel pressurised while genuinely unable to return to work, and their working relationship with their employer may crumble.

What is the answer?

For me, there are some fundamental things HR practitioners and line managers should demonstrate to ensure they are fair and consistent when it comes to managing sickness absence, particularly recurring sickness absence.

In the first instance, a robust sickness absence management policy needs to be in place. This includes absence reporting and recording procedures, applied equally to all staff. You cannot manage sickness absence if you do not record it.

The frequency and methods of contact between the absent employee and their employer should be agreed between all parties. The employer needs to propose regular reviews to discuss the individual's progress, problems and their return to work plans.

If there is a concern about the length or frequency of the individual's absences from work, there is a possibility that there may be an underlying medical condition, and the employer may wish to engage the employee's treating practitioners or arrange an independent medical assessment.

Return to work interviews

Return to work interviews should be used when managing sickness absence. Some of the topics to discuss with the individual concerned during the interview are:

  • Any medication taken or are there any side effects of the medication that might affect the individual's ability to work.
  • Whether the individual's treating practitioners have approved their return to work and made any recommendations regarding workplace support required.
  • To enquire the employee, what help they may benefit from.
  • Any concerns about outstanding workplace issues, such as problems with workplace relationships, outstanding grievances, complaints, etc.

Recurring absences

If sickness absence is recurring, consider if there is a particular pattern or underlying issues:

  • Consult the company's alcohol and drug use policy, if required.
  • Consider if the individual may have an underlying medical condition that may be causing them to take time off work repeatedly.
  • Initiate an open discussion with the individual concerned, enquiring about problems and offering support.
  • Suggest requesting their treating practitioners' opinion, if you have concerns about the employee's wellbeing, health or the duration of their sickness absence.

Support mechanisms

Exploring what sort of workplace support may be appropriate includes the following:

  • Considering what sort of workplace adaptations may be required, to suit the individual's limitations.
  • Offering a phased return to work plan, based on the individual's reported capabilities and limitations.
  • Considering amending the individual's duties whilst on a phased return to work
  • Identifying an alternative suitable role, if required.
  • Arranging regular one-to-one reviews, to discuss progress, support and any problems.

My advice to HR practitioners and line managers is not to be afraid of honest discussions with the absent employees, particularly when sickness absence is recurring.

These discussions help to identify return to work barriers and underlying issues, initiating open conversations about any problems and support required. They also help to outline the expectations of all parties involved.

The open discussions encourage employees to voice their concerns and request help. From the employer's point of view, these discussions help to effectively manage and monitor sickness absence, particularly in most complex cases such as recurring absences. It also helps to ensure that the sickness management process is structured, consistent, clear and fair.

Katya Halsall is a vocational rehabilitation consultant at Unum