D-BRIEF – Employment & Pensions Blog: Long-term Sickness

The Office for National Statistics have recently reported that the number of employees not working due to long-term sickness has risen to over two and a half million. This means for every 13 people currently working, one person is long-term sick. It is reported that this increase is being driven by Mental ill health, musculoskeletal injuries (MSK) (possibly as a result of home working environment) and long Covid.

As reported in our previous blog, the Government is taking steps to increase the UK workforce to boost the economy. This has included measures to encourage people back to work by expanding the funding of occupational health services and changes to the rules around health-related benefits and universal credit. But what can employers do to bring down their levels of long-term absence?

Preventative measures

Preventative measures can be taken by employers to avoid employees going off sick in the first place. This includes making sure they are on top of presenteeism, the concept of someone working when they are actually sick, and managers should be encouraged to set an example themselves but also challenge employees as to whether they should actually be working if they are reporting symptoms of illness. For situations where there is a workplace issue bubbling, managers should be encouraged to have early conversations to tackle and deal with any issues before they result in employees going off sick. HR should review and monitor trends and make sure these are investigated to address any underlying issues in particular business areas or with particular employees.

Given the trend for hybrid working post Covid, employers should have a policy requiring employees to ensure a suitable working environment at home. Employees should be required to identify any health and safety hazards in their home working environment and minimise the risk of these. For any employees with a disability or reporting MSK issues, employers should carry out a risk assessment and or make an occupational health referral to consider whether any special equipment such as a chair may be needed.

Reactive measures

In a time where long-term absence levels are at their highest, employers will need to work hard to keep their absence levels down and do all they can to get employees back to work. Where employee absence is as a result of something work related, i.e. stress at work, employers should seek to resolve any outstanding grievances and or issues as soon as possible to remove any perceived barriers to someone returning.

Where the absence arises out of a health condition unrelated to work, employers will have limited control over how long someone is off. However employers should do all they can to keep in touch with the employee and keep them updated and engaged with the workplace, which may help to head off any anxiety arising out of the absence and increase the chance of them ultimately returning. Management through the absence management/sickness policy should also be commenced as soon as triggers are hit rather than letting matters drift. This will include seeking medical advice at appropriate intervals and making decisions based on this, including making any reasonable adjustments required to get someone back to work.

For further advice on absence management please contact a member of the Employment Team.

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