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Dealing with long-term absences from work

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Long-term absences from work due to sickness are at a record high in the UK. From April to June of 2023, nearly half a million people took leave from work because of a long-term illness, adding to the 2.5 million people already absent long-term.  

Recent figures reveal that over 185 million sick days were taken in 2022, a rise of 35.8 million on the previous year. A long-term leave period is generally defined as an absence of more than 28 days.

Mental health and musculoskeletal issues are the leading reasons staff give for needing time off, with around 76% of respondents to a recent CIPD survey citing stress as the reason for their absence.

The inability to receive required treatment quickly is also preventing employees from returning to work. As of August 2023, the waiting list to receive treatment from the NHS stands at 7.75 million people with a current average wait time of 14.5 weeks.

So, how can businesses address the issues caused by long-term work absence while also supporting their employees at a time of stress and discomfort? Beecham Peacock, employment law solicitors in Newcastle, offers some expert guidance.

Key findings

  • Long-term absence due to sickness is at a record high in the UK.
  • Workers took over 185 million sick days in 2022, a rise of 35.8 million on the previous year.
  • Mental health and musculoskeletal issues are the leading reasons for time off, with around 76% of employees citing stress as the reason for their absence.
  • The waiting list to receive treatment from the NHS stands at 75 million people with a current average wait time of 14.5 weeks.
  • 53% of employees in the UK have come to work despite feeling unwell in the last three months.
  • In 2023, the average worker in the UK was absent for 8 days.
  • Since the pandemic, the number of people ‘economically inactive’ has risen by 363,000.

A case-by-case approach

Every employee is different, which is why it’s important to treat each instance of long-term sickness on a case-by-case basis.

It’s essential to maintain and make your employees aware of your absence policy. This ensures that your employees are aware of the processes around sickness leave and feel comfortable addressing any issues. If employees are off work due to ill health, it is important to retain good communication, keep them informed of next steps and discuss with them what, if any, support you can provide. This will help employees to feel valued and secure in their employment.

If employees’ absences are becoming an issue, it’s important to seek legal advice for each individual case to ensure that you treat all your employees fairly and respectfully. Lisa Branker, Head of Employment and HR at Beecham Peacock recommends conducting “both formal and informal review meetings with your employee. You may want to meet with your employee informally in the first instance, to allow them to speak about anything that’s worrying them. You should be clear that if the absence is continuing that you will move onto the formal process, but reassure them that this is to ensure that you can support them, that they are paid correctly and that their sick leave is correctly recorded. Both parties should be aware of the relevant requirements, such as doctor’s notes.”

Supportive measures

A recent study shows that 31% of employees feel their workload is excessive during a normal week. Lisa Branker says, “With many employees citing stress and mental health concerns as their reason for a long-term absence, it’s important to put supportive measures in place. You should ensure your workplace is as compassionate and open as possible. Employees should never feel nervous reporting a mental health grievance or asking for time off due to stress or worry.”

Giving employees access to services such as confidential mental health check-ins and employee assistance programmes can be beneficial. Training particular team members to become mental health first aiders is also a great option, providing your employees with someone sympathetic to talk to who’s separate from the management team.

Although the number of people requesting long-term leave has risen by 363,000 since the start of the pandemic, the trend towards higher levels of long-term sickness began before COVID and the subsequent work-from-home culture. The option to work from home is still a great way to support your employees and offer them an easier way to achieve a healthy work-life balance.

Offering flexi-time is another great way to show your team that you understand their home life will influence their work performance. This kind of provision can help minimise stress, particularly for employees who have caring commitments.

Post-absence support

The offer of alternative duties can help make an employee’s return to work following a period of absence easier. Alternative duties can include light duties, part-time work or a job share set-up with another employee. Providing returning employees with alternative ways of working will help them feel valued and encourage a smoother transition back into the workplace.

You can also provide physical changes for a returning employee. This is especially important to think about if they have musculoskeletal issues or physical pain. Standing desks, ergonomic chairs and raised screens can all contribute to a workspace optimised for comfort.

There is no one answer when it comes to long-term sick leave and, as Lisa comments, “you must take each case on an individual basis. A well drafted absence policy and dialogue with your employees is key”.

If you have an employee dealing with a long-term illness, remember above all to be sympathetic and helpful in your approach. Offer potential changes to their work day that might enable them to begin to return to work and keep a record of their absence.

About Beecham Peacock

Established in 1953, Beecham Peacock is one of the North East’s leading law firms with a wealth of experience in a myriad of different legal fields. Its team of expert solicitors includes specialists in wills, trusts and probate, personal injury, family law and employment law. The firm also offers a wide range of other legal services