Managing Long-Term Sickness Absence – What Is Reasonable?
As an employer, you need to take a certain level of care and sensitivity towards long-term sickness absence in the workplace.
It can be a slippery slope when it comes to making adjustments for their return, though.
Whilst most employers are aware of the necessity of support for employees when it comes to long-term absences, it can sometimes feel like you’re navigating a storm with what does and doesn’t class as a reasonable adjustment.
Given that long-term absences can be difficult for both the employee and the employer, particularly when the time comes to return to work, it’s important to get it right.
What is long-term sickness absence?
Traditionally, long-term sickness absence is defined as a period of continuous absence of more than four weeks.
These absences may be due to chronic conditions, accidents, unexpected illnesses, or planned operations.
Other common reasons for long-term absences include:
- Acute medical conditions (e.g., cancer or heart problems)
- Musculo-skeletal injuries
- Back pain
- Mental health
The early stages
If an employee has been absent for more than four weeks, with no clear indication of a return to work at that time, a formal absence meeting is usually the first step, but this can depend on your processes.
You likely have a clear policy in place already, outlining the number of paid sick days that employees are entitled to, unpaid sick leave, expectations of attendance, and most importantly, the procedure to notify the business of sick leave.
These sick leave policies usually include a notification of absence, proof of incapacity (fit notes), employer rights to medical records, sick pay provisions, reasonable adjustments and any interactions with occupational health if available.
But what kind of adjustments can you be expected to make?
Generally, a reasonable adjustment is defined as a change to remove, or reduce, the effect of an employee’s absence due to their condition or illness.
These adjustments could fall under three brackets, including adjustments to: the workplace, the way things are done, and outsourcing help for the employee.
If an employee’s medical condition amounts to a disability, an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.
Keep in mind that the Act defines disability as both physical and mental impairments that last, or are expected to last, 12 months or more, and have a substantial effect on the individual’s day-to-day life.
Reasonable adjustments are dependant on a few factors, such as the size and resources of an organisation, or any barriers posed by the employee’s role and workplace.
Some examples of common adjustments are:
- Physical changes/adaptations to premises
- Reduced working hours (flexible working options)
- Remote working opportunities
- Phased returns to work
Most importantly, adjustments should be directly discussed with the employee so that changes are as appropriate and effective as possible, and the employee may have recommendations for equipment or software that can be utilised.
In some cases, however, an employee may struggle to pinpoint what adjustments they might need in the workplace, in which case, occupational health is the best next step for support.
What classes as reasonable?
For employers concerned about how reasonable some adjustments might be, there are a few aspects that can determine if an adjustment is proportionate:
- The effectiveness of the adjustment in preventing any disadvantage for the employee
- The practicality of the adjustment
- The expected length of the employee’s service (are they permanently employed, or on a fixed-term or temporary contract?)
- The amount of help and assistance already provided to the employee
- Health and safety concerns and considerations
Some examples of reasonable adjustments in the workplace
The Equality Act 2010 covers changes to provision, criterion or practice.
Here are some examples of reasonable adjustments:
- Changes to working hours e.g., offering flexible working hours that can allow for longer breaks, GP visits, or exemptions from overtime
- A change of working space (e.g., remote working opportunities, a shift to the ground floor in the case of mobility issues)
- Phased returns to work
- Granting time off/changing procedural requirements (e.g., allowing an employee to take paid time off work to attend medical appointments)
- Adjustments and modifications to the premises (e.g., widening doorways, replacing office furniture, lighting adjustments)
Seeking the advice of an occupational health provider
Navigating the tightrope of long-term absences and reasonable adjustments can be much easier when consulting with healthcare professionals.
With long-term sickness absence, an occupational health professional/provider has a primary aim of removing the barriers that an employee has to overcome in order to return to work safely.
This could result in multiple courses of action regarding adjustments, such as rehabilitation programmes, reduced hours, flexible or remote working, or a temporary change of job in order to build up strength.
Here’s the common issue – how easy will it be to find the right occupational health provider to help you assess your employee’s needs?
Finding an occupational health provider
If you don’t currently have an occupational health provider, or have had difficulty in previous attempts to find the best provider for your needs, our platform at Simply-People can help.
You can search by service, practitioner type, or if you’re unsure, our provider search can provide questions in order to narrow down your needs instead.
Securing an occupational health provider ensures that you have a rounded scope of advice regarding reasonable adjustments, so that you can make the best decision possible for yourself, your employee, and your company.
It can be hard to deduce what adjustments are reasonable when it comes to long-term sickness absence, but the main aim is to use the resources you have to ensure that individuals returning to work aren’t at a disadvantage.
Collaboration can go a long way in ensuring adjustments are proportionate and effective, which is why seeking the advice of an occupational health provider can add a little certainty to the process.
If you’d like help finding the right occupational health provider quickly and easily, we can help you to find the support you need.