Every absence needs to be carefully monitored and managed. While it’s impossible to expect that human beings will have no days off work, you can still try to minimise absence levels to cut disruption to your business.

Yet, some absences are trickier than others. Coughs, colds, bugs and diseases are all standard issues, but more serious health conditions – physical or mental – might well need a more careful and considered response.

Any absence that is going to require an employee to be away from the workplace for 28 days or more should be considered as a case of long-term absence (although you might define the length of time in your own way) and you should react accordingly.

So, what do you need to think about when managing long-term absence effectively? Here’s our 11-step guide…

1. Share your policy

It’s important that everyone is clear about how your business chooses to manage long-term absence. This should be spelled out clearly in an employee handbook – and this should be made available to employees when they start their role. Ideally, electronic copies of this should also be placed in an easily accessible shared folder.

Your policy needs to outline how you intend to act and when – and it’s important to realise that you might need to show that you’ve followed this in full if you are later challenged on the dismissal of an employee.

You might well want to include some details of the steps below in your policy – and you may also want to update and amend your policy as you go.

2. Training

It’s also important that everyone involved in managing long-term absence is comfortable with what they’re being asked to do. Line managers in particular are the first port of call for an employee who is suffering with an illness. It’s vital that they know when to contact an employee and how to talk to them in an appropriate way.

It’s also important that they’re trained to spot the signs of more serious conditions, especially when it comes to mental health. Early intervention can help to avoid a mental health issue becoming much worse – but not everyone is a natural at this. A small amount of training for managers can save a lot of time down the line.

3. Know the law

Training should also cover the requirements of the legislation in this field. While every business might have its own policy in place, all have to start from a position of what is and isn’t allowed, according to the legislation. Pay particular attention to any new legislation that may come in and ensure that employees are given refresher sessions to update their knowledge of this.

4. Communication

It’s good to talk – but you need to establish the ground rules. You should set out the minimum requirements for an employee reporting an absence, as well as a policy for keeping in touch with someone when they’re off sick for a long period. This contact shouldn’t be too intrusive or feel like an interrogation – and the time, date and details of the discussion should be noted.

5. Medical evidence

When an employee is off work for more than seven days you will, typically, ask for a Statement of Fitness for Work – also known as a fit note or sick note.

If their sickness becomes a long-term absence, however, you may wish to clarify the employee’s prognosis and long-term capability for work with a medical professional.

It’s important to stress that you have to seek the employee’s consent before you seek a medical report – whether this comes from their own doctor or from an occupational health expert.

Once you receive this, you might require special training in how to look after an employee with a particular condition – or ask for guidance from a medical professional in what you can and can’t do.

6. Monitoring system

Your absence monitoring system will really come in to its own when it comes to short-term sickness, but it still plays a role in longer term absences. This will ensure that you can keep and maintain records of absences, details of any action taken and any documents relating to an employees’ illness that might help you when it comes to assisting their return to work or, if it comes to it, a tribunal. You can also use your software system for reminders of review dates, for example.

If you’re not confident that your current system is giving you the data you require – or allows you to carry out people analytics – then it’s time to look for a more effective system.

7. Trigger points

Sometimes, a long-term absence can be the result of a smaller problem that has snowballed into something more serious. That’s why it’s vital that you keep on top of short-term absences and learn to spot the signs of an issue that has the potential of becoming much worse.

Trigger points are prompts for action that can be handy with this. If an employer has a number of short spells of absence, then this should trigger a prompt for a chat about what the underlying cause might be. This chat might be all that is needed to encourage an employee to go to their doctor to check up on a persistent problem or to seek support for a mental health issue that they have been reluctant to talk about.

Metrics such as the Bradford Factor can provide scores for such a trigger.

8. Phased returns

It’s important to do all you can to help your employee to get back to work when they’re recovering from an illness that might have caused a long-term absence. Remember, in many cases an employee will want to come back to their job to get back to normal and put a period of illness behind them. This means that you might need to consider how you would manage a phased return to work. Whether this is reduced hours, a shorter working week, longer or more regular breaks or even reduced duties for a short period – all of these things can help to bring an end to a long period of absence.

HR departments should work closely with line managers and the colleagues of the returning employee to make sure an appropriate phased return is offered and that everyone is clear about the terms on which an employee is returning.

9. Workplace adjustments

Getting an employee back to work after a period of long-term absence might mean that you need to change the way you operate. Small changes around the workplace could make a huge difference – whether that’s improved access or chairs and desks that would aid employees with reduced mobility, for example.

Businesses should work with their employee and the recommendations of a healthcare professional to try to provide a suitable working environment for someone looking to return to work.

10. Return to work interviews

Return to work interviews are a crucial part of the absence management process – and provide a line manager with a great opportunity to spot the signs of a long-term issue that might be taking root in an employee.

Employees might well not go into great detail about their condition when they’re alerting you on the phone – and might well be nervous of talking about a mental health issue, for example. The right back-to-work interview, between an employee and a manager they trust can be the appropriate setting in which to bring this up.

11. Proactive approach

Businesses shouldn’t allow themselves to be solely reactive when it comes to managing absenteeism. By improving their workplace environment and offering flexitime, for example, companies can help employees to have a happier and healthier work/life balance and this might help to prevent someone’s job from contributing to their ill health. While this might have more of an impact on short-term sickness than longer term issues, it’s important to realise that short-term issues can easily become a longer-term problem if they are allowed to mushroom.

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