Managing long-term absence

Small business insight

1 January 2018

Nobody wants to see their employees signed off work indefinitely but, while it can be upsetting and potentially awkward to discuss, managing long-term absence strategically is key.

In many small businesses, managing while one of your team is away on holiday for a week is bad enough – so what happens when that employee takes maternity/paternity leave, or even long-term sickness absence?

During this time the work still needs to be done. The burden of this may fall to your remaining staff, who may not take kindly to being over-worked.

Managing duty of care while keeping morale up can mean walking a fine line, which is why your first port of call should generally be doing whatever you can to help an employee return to work. Maintaining contact with an absent employee can help to ease the transition back to work. It can also make them feel valued and their work place less threatening. A manager should negotiate frequency and mode of contact to ease the transition.

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Preventing absence

Naturally, there are times when sickness isn’t preventable. However, often there are ways of managing health that can prevent employees from taking long absences.

According to Fit for Work, stress and mental health problems are two of the most common reasons for taking long term absence from work1. As an employer, there are things you can do to help manage this risk.

For example, look out for signs of stress in your employees. This can be difficult, as employees may try to mask this from employers, but things such as frequent colds or infections, seeming tired and lethargic or frequent complaints of tense muscles and pains, appearing less engaged and withdrawn, can be red flags. If you spot these signs, take an employee aside and check in on their wellbeing, ask if there’s anything relating to work that’s bothering them – negotiate with them and identify potential adjustments that could be made to support them but still fit with the business requirements – perhaps you can help spread the load a little more or be more flexible around working times.

Employers should be approachable, and employees should feel comfortable that their mental health issues will be taken as seriously as a physical condition. In addition, where possible, they should encourage a healthy lifestyle – simple things such as sports days and free gym memberships, or providing fruit in the office can help.

Long-term illness

If a business is unfortunate enough to have an employee suffering from long-term sickness, employers should do what they can to help them return to work. This can mean making changes at your workplace to make it easier or more comfortable for them, or by enabling them to work more flexibly or remotely, if possible.

If they aren’t able to complete their own work but expect that they’ll be able to return to work eventually, you either have to ensure their work is covered by colleagues or take on a temporary employee to handle it.

A temporary role may be costly – you’ll have the recruitment costs and extra wages to consider. Depending on the size and culture of the business, it may be worth speaking openly to employees about whether they have the capacity to take on extra work.

If you do decide to spread the extra work around existing staff, keep in mind that this could increase stress for them, too. It’ll take some careful juggling, and you’ll need to keep a close eye out for anyone else showing signs of being over-worked or stressed.

You could also look into protecting your most important asset, your people, with business healthcare cover. This would ensure if sickness should occur they can get the treatment they need and be back to work quickly.

Getting your people back to work

The best way to cope with repeated or long-term absence is to have an open dialogue with poorly employees. Make sure they feel they can approach you about any issues that are likely to cause bouts of sickness or work absences. This way you can plan for it as best you can.

For example, you could try to ensure they work on individual projects, rather than as part of team projects. This means they can manage their own time rather than disrupting a team that requires collaboration on a day to day basis.

Alternatively, you could increase collaborative working practices in the office and make sure that all of their work is available on the cloud so that someone else in the team can easily pick up where they’ve left off if they can’t make it to work.

Sources and references

1Fit for Work (2016). Phased return to work after sickness absence

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