In an interview with The Times, Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, also said the impact of the pandemic on people's mental health had exacerbated the issue of long-term sickness.
The number of people out of work due to long-term sickness hit a record high of 2.5 million in July 2022, according to the Office for National Statistics.
May 2023 labour market research found this figure had grown by 438,000.
In an effort to reduce the number of long-term sick, and help employers access the skills they need, Stride has promised an expansion of a West Midlands and Yorkshire-based pilot which pairs those with long-term health conditions with a coach to help them access employment.
Yet Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula UK, said businesses can also play a role in preventing long-term sickness in the first instance.
She told HR magazine: “Having dedicated policies that line managers are trained on will be a significant benefit in the prevention of long-term sickness.
“These should deal with issues such as physical and mental health, and reasonable adjustments in the case of disabilities.
“As line managers have the most direct influence on an individual and their ways of working, they are best placed to help them manage their work to ensure they stay healthy.”
Idris Arshad, HR business partner at St Christopher’s Hospice added that businesses should take a compassionate approach to sickness management. He told HR magazine: “As organisations we need to understand people's individual circumstances and the impact of Covid, and look at how quickly we offer support.
“We need a greater degree of understanding and supportive decision-making, looking at long hours, workload, and how stress plays a role.
“These days, we can’t just say ‘we’ve hit stage three. Now we dismiss’ as no one asks to be long-term sick. If we can do this well, we reduce the risks of tribunals and damaging staff.”
Palmer agreed, adding that leadership modelling and understanding the benefits of a health focus are also crucial. She said: “If an employee goes off long-term sick the employers lose the benefit of their skills and expertise.
“There is also the danger of claims based on disability discrimination or constructive unfair dismissal, which can be costly for employers and detrimental to their reputation.”
Palmer also said that businesses can be proactive in managing their employees who are off on long-term sickness.
She said: “It can be encouraged by maintaining contact with the individual whilst they are absent, and working closely with them to identify any adjustments or alternatives that can be made to their work or location that might enable them to return to work.”