It’s no secret that UK employers are currently struggling with high levels of sickness rates – particularly amongst the young. The question is what to do about it.

Managing sickness absence is a notoriously tricky area for employers to navigate but it’s an important one – not only for the employee involved but also given the impact a long-term absence can have across the wider workforce.

Long-term sickness has recently been reported as the most common cause of economic inactivity, accounting for 28% of total inactivity (House of Commons Library Insight, published March 2024). A record 2.83 million people are out of work because of ill health – a 30-year high and, notably, an increase of 688,000 compared to pre-pandemic figures (ONS Statistics and a report by the Health Foundation).

Managing long-term sickness absence, particularly where it relates to mental ill health, is often difficult from both a legal and employee relations perspective. Disability discrimination, unfair/ constructive dismissal and unlawful deductions from wages are some of the key legal risks whilst loss of productivity, resourcing issues, increased management time and low staff morale add to the employer burden.

Statistics show the more quickly an employee returns to work after a period of ill-health the more likely they are to stay in work so in a bid to help, I have put together a selection of top tips for managing sickness absence whilst best supporting the employee in a return to work.

1) Prevention is better than cure (quite literally!) 

A focus on minimising the likelihood of people getting ill in the first place (to the extent that you can) is a great place to start.  Investing in your people’s health and well-being is likely to pay dividends. Not only will this play a role in keeping your existing employees well but it may also help you attract new talent – working for an employer who understands the importance of well-being is now high on the agenda of most new recruits. In-house GP services, access to private medical cover, employee assistance programmes and subsided gym memberships are becoming more commonplace employee benefits.

Employers in a position to offer these benefits may well be rewarded with lower sickness absence rates – assuming those benefits are well-publicised. If these options are not available to you as an employer, other lower or no cost initiatives, which show you take an employee’s health and well-being seriously, can still make a difference. Encouraging employees to take lunch breaks, organising walking or running clubs, and setting up employee networks can all make a positive difference.

The line manager also plays a critical role both in reinforcing your organisation’s well-being messages as well as being your eyes and ears on the ground. Is there a change in an employee’s behaviour? Is a normally reliable employee taking time off sick? Is someone who is clearly unwell, still coming into work? Being alert to such behaviours can offer the opportunity to nip issues in the bud and ensure employees are supported early. Being rigorous with return-to-work one-to-ones is a good way to do this. Studies have shown that the longer a period of sickness absence continues, the harder it can be to return to work – providing support from the start can really pay off.

2) Don’t be an ostrich – always stay in control

Managing long-term sickness absence effectively is a tricky business and, for an HR professional with too many things to do, it’s all too easy for the employee who is off on long-term sick to slip to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list. Equally, employees may be happy to lie low if you have generous company sick pay provisions.

However, ensuring you have a clear absence management process in place, will help you stay in control. A straightforward process which the employee understands and which you stick to is likely to give you the best chance of successfully getting the employee back to work. If, ultimately, that is not possible, adhering to your policy should reduce the risk of any subsequent dismissal being unfair or discriminatory.

3) Get the best out of Occupational Health

To manage the absence effectively (and to minimise the risk of legal claims) you will need to understand the employee’s medical condition, its impact on their ability to do their role, and the likely prognosis. This will often involve seeking advice from OH, the employee’s GP and/ or a specialist. Aim to get medical advice early in the process and then continue to seek regular updates on the employee’s condition throughout the period of absence.

Get the most out of any OH referral by providing a detailed background about what’s been happening, including providing information about the employee’s role and duties. Tailor questions specifically to both the employee’s and the organisation’s circumstances.

Sometimes it can be tempting to ask OH to give a view on whether the employee is disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. However, this is a legal test not a medical one so it is sensible to focus questions for OH on the elements of the test where they can give an opinion, for example how the condition impacts on the employee’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities and/or how long the condition is expected to last.

4) Consider reasonable and workplace adjustments

Most employers will be familiar with their legal duty to make reasonable adjustments where an employee is disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act. To facilitate any return to work, reasonable adjustments might include offering a return on a part-time basis or on restricted hours which might allow the employee to travel outside peak commuter times.

However, even if an employee is unlikely to meet the disability test, you may still want to consider if you are able to make any workplace adjustments to facilitate their return. Not only is this sensible from an employee relations perspective, it may also help you reduce your risk of legal claims, by showing you acted reasonably, in the event that the employee ultimately leaves employment.

These workplace adjustments will be akin to reasonable adjustments and might include providing access to new equipment (a standing desk for example), permitting the employee to work from home, changing their working pattern to better accommodate their medical condition or changing elements of their role. It will be important not to simply impose reasonable or workplace adjustments on the employee – identify possible adjustments in conjunction with the employee and on the basis of medical/ OH advice.

5) Don’t forget the wider impact 

When an employee is off sick, there can be a tendency to focus on that individual and inadvertently neglect the impact of their absence on the wider team. Make sure that employees who are covering the absent employee’s role are not overburdened and show that their efforts and cooperation are appreciated.

Managing sickness absence is never easy but keeping a rigorous focus on supporting the employee to recover with the end goal of managing a successful return to work will be useful guiding principles through the process.

Menna Chmielewski
Employment lawyer at Burges Salmon | Website | + posts

Menna Chmielewski is an employment solicitor with experience advising on contentious and non-contentious employment issues and HR matters. Menna has experience in defending employment tribunal claims, drafting contracts of employment, reviewing handbooks and HR policies, advising on internal grievances processes and advising on termination including the drafting of settlement agreements.