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How to support an employee on long-term sick leave

What can employers do to ensure people are properly supported while on long-term sick leave? Photo: Getty
What can employers do to ensure people are properly supported while on long-term sick leave? Photo: Getty (Westend61 via Getty Images)

It’s no secret that our workplaces are unhealthy. From stress and burnout to COVID-19 and flu, many workers find themselves unable to work from time-to-time and have to take extended time off to recover.

The number on long-term sick leave is on the rise. Between June and August 2022, about 2.5 million people reported sickness as the main reason for economic inactivity, up from around 2 million in 2019.

And although coronavirus has undoubtedly contributed to this growing figure, the rise in long-term sickness actually started before the pandemic hit the UK. In fact, it has been steadily increasing since 2019.

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A range of factors are likely to be influencing this increase in sick leave. According to research by Indeed, only 27% of Brits are happy at work and three-quarters said their workplace unhappiness had negatively impacted their health. Stress can affect us both mentally and physically, leading to depression, anxiety, headaches, insomnia and leaving our immune systems less-equipped to fight off viruses.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, conditions such as Strep A, flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) have also been on the rise. Long COVID, as well as other chronic or long-term conditions, also leave many unable to work.

Without adequate support, those on long-term sick leave – which is normally classed as taking more than four weeks off work – risk being forced out of work entirely. ONS data shows nearly 400,000 workers have left the job market due to health issues since February 2020. So what can employers do to ensure people are properly supported while on long-term sick leave?

Decide when and how to keep in touch

Regular communication and support during the absence period can help people feel in the loop and less anxious about being forced out of work. Checking in with someone who is off sick lets them know they’re still a valued member of the company. It also means employers are aware of a worker’s health status, so they can adjust their expectations of a return accordingly.

However, although communication is important, employees shouldn’t feel bombarded or pressured to return to work before they are well enough. It can be helpful for employers and employees to agree on how to stay in touch during absence and how much contact is reasonable. It’s also important to decide how to keep in touch, whether it is via email or phone.

Don’t pressure the employee to return

Forcing someone to return to work before they are ready will likely only cause further problems. If someone has been off with stress or any other condition, putting pressure on them to return can worsen their health issues – and negate any benefits of their absence.

When contacting someone on long-term sick leave, focus on their wellbeing and make it clear that the organisation will support them and their needs. Don’t make someone feel guilty for needing time off. It can help to reassure someone that their job will be there for them when they do return.

Make adjustments

It is unlikely that an employee who has been on long-term sick leave will feel confident enough or able to return to work at full-speed. Employers should consider ways to reintegrate someone back into work, such as a phased return, flexible hours or altered responsibilities.

Making adequate adjustments – depending on the individual and their needs – can help someone get back to their usual role without risking a relapse or further health problems.

Remember everyone is different

While someone may need a month or two off work to recover, others may need considerably longer. It’s essential not to make assumptions about an employee’s situation and their needs. Recovery times for the same condition can vary greatly among individuals.

Create a plan for each employee based on their requirements, which includes check-in points. Only the individual will be able to tell you if they are able to return to work safely – so it’s important to listen to their views and concerns.

Watch: UK study points to benefits of 4-day work week

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