Managing Long Term Sickness Absences – A Guide For Employers

Long Term Sickness

People will take time off due to sickness or illness. Most employers are sympathetic about their team’s welfare. But, long-term sickness absences can put your business in a tricky situation. Particularly if you have no policy in place.

Long term sickness absence is often classed as continuous absence lasting more than 4 weeks.

Sickness absence can be caused by a mixture of:

  • an employee’s general physical condition. E.g. personal injury, recovery from surgery, or serious illnesses such as cancer
  • working conditions including health and safety standards or levels of workplace stress
  • family concerns or mental health issues including depression or anxiety

There are two stages to managing an employee’s long-term sickness absence.

1) whilst they are absent from work

2) planning their likely return to work

When you know that long-term sickness absence is likely, you should discuss the situation with your team member. This will allow you to identify likely timescales and impact, how you can offer support, and manage any employment concerns. This can include agreeing on suitable cover and clarifying sick pay entitlements.

Stage 1 – During Long-Term Sickness Absence

Maintaining Contact with the Employee

An employee on long-term sick leave may feel isolated. It is important for them to know that, even though they are off sick, support is available.

It is also important to keep in touch with them. This will enable you to organise cover and start planning the next steps as needed.

It is good practice to agree with your team member how and when you will stay in touch, so they feel supported.

Obtaining Medical Advice
Speak to your employee about an Occupational Health referral for an impartial assessment. This would include how long they are likely to be absent, and any steps you could take to help them return to work.

Stage 2 – Managing Their Return to Work

When medical professionals agree your team member is ready, you should take reasonable steps to support any professional recommendations to ease their return to work. This may be via a GP Fit Note, a medical report or other written communication.

Areas to discuss with your team member

  1. A phased return to work to gradually get back to normal hours and working pattern over an agreed period
  2. Whether they will be fit to perform all the duties of their job or whether temporary or permanent adjustments may be needed.
  3. If they are taking any medication which may have side effects, for example, tiredness. You should conduct any relevant health & safety risk assessments as needed.

Using Phased Returns To Help Employees Returning To Work

It is good practice to offer a phased return as this is a ‘reasonable adjustment’ that employers can make to help an employee gradually build up their physical and mental strength needed for their role.  They can be very beneficial for both the employer and the employee to encourage an overall long-term successful return to work.

Phased returns are helpful when employees are well enough to return to work but may need a transitional period before returning to full work duties and hours. Or, they may be able to return with some adaptations to their role.

A phased return to work should be based on medical advice from a Doctor’s fit note or Occupational Health assessment.

The manager should discuss and agree the following with the employee:


1. When the phased return is to start

2. The hours and work the employee will do and how these will be gradually reintroduced

3. Any other changes to the working arrangements

4. Any arrangements for tracking the employees’ progress and identifying any difficulties


A phased return should normally be for a period of no more than six weeks on full pay for time worked. Periods off sick would normally be paid at the appropriate rate of sick pay. In some cases, it may be appropriate to agree that the employee takes any paid holiday accrued whilst off sick.

When Employees Are Unable to Return To Work

If the employee is unable to return to their role you should explore any changes you could make to remove obstacles to their return. Alternatively, consider if permanent redeployment to a more suitable role is possible. This should be in line with up-to-date medical advice.

An ill-health capability dismissal may be considered where these options aren’t possible. Or, if you can’t reasonably accommodate professional advice on the timescales before their return. Dismissal should be the last resort. The process followed must be fair, legal and in line with your sickness absence policy.

Key points when dealing with long-term sickness absence

  • keep in regular contact
  • discuss any options for returning to work following professional advice
  • be clear about arrangements for sick pay
  • conduct return to work meetings
  • develop a ‘getting back to work’ programme to support the employee’s return
  • ensure your sickness policy covers the management of both short and long-term sickness
  • ensure your policy covers the management of long term ill health capability dismissals as following a disciplinary process may not be viewed as appropriate
  • be clear about arrangements for sick pay
  • conduct return to work meetings
  • develop a ‘getting back to work’ programme to support the employee’s return
  • ensure your sickness policy covers the management of both short and long-term sickness
  • ensure your policy covers the management of long term ill health capability dismissals as following a disciplinary process may not be viewed as appropriate

Do you need advice on managing long term sickness absence within your business? Contact Concilium HR today on 07885 370054 or email debbie@concilium-hr.co.uk.

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