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Reoccurring sickness absence – advice for employers

According to CIPD, the annual cost of sickness absence has climbed to almost £29 billion for UK organisations (, July 2013).

As an independent Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant with over 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 reoccurring sickness absence.

Those in charge of managing workplace absence frequently tell me about a dilemma they are facing. On one hand, they do not wish to appear “too pushy”, pressurising the absent individual to return to work too soon. Consequently, they are guided exclusively by the employee concerned, suggesting very little in terms of managing their absence. This often results in unnecessary dramatic increase of the length of the sickness absence, as well as in re-occurring absences. And, 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, which could seem as too demanding and inconsiderate to the needs of the individual concerned. As a result, the absent employees may either feel that no one cares anyway, taking time off work as sick leave time and time again. Or, quite the opposite, they may feel pressurised whilst genuinely unable to return to work, and their working relationship with their employer may crumble.

So, what is the answer?

For me, there are two fundamental things: the HR practitioners and Line Managers should demonstrate that they are fair and consistent when it comes to managing sickness absence, particularly reoccurring sickness absence. Let's break this down, step by step. 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.Trigger points should be established for when it is appropriate to make a referral for an Occupational Health assessment or to a Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant. The aim of this type of assessments is to establishthe barriersand issues that are surrounding going back to work and,  consequently, to work out a solution that will be suitable for both – the absent employee and their employer. As a Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant, I devise return to work plans, based on the individual’s reported capabilities and limitations, as well as on the demands of their role.

The frequency and methods of contact between the absent employee and their employer should be agreed between all parties. 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 employer may wish to engage the employee’s treating practitioners or arrange an independent medical assessment.

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:

Reasons for their absence; Whether a doctor was consulted and what treatment the employee has received; Any current symptoms, as well as updates on progress and improvement; 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. If sickness absence is re-occurring, 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.

Suggest employing additional help, such as referring to Occupational Health Providers or Vocational Rehabilitation Consultants. As a Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant, I would conduct a detailed assessment with the employee concerned, with the aim of exploring the reasons for their absence and discussing solutions. I will ensure that clear timescales and defined goals are established, with regards of return to work support. I provide the referrer with a detailed report, which includes a list of rehabilitation recommendations, a case management plan and advice on the suitable return to work plan.

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; Exploring which workplace assessments (such as Ergonomic Assessments, DSE, Job Analysis, etc ) may need to be conducted 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 I work with as a Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant, is not to be afraid of honest discussions with the absent employees, particularly when sickness absence is reoccurring.

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 reoccurring absences. It also helps to ensure that the sickness management process is structured, consistent, clear and fair.

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