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Legal insights & industry updates

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Managing long-term sickness absence

With a record number of people currently not working in the UK due to long-term health problems, we are seeing a rise in the number of requests from employers for advice on how to support and deal with staff who are absent from work for a significant period of time. 

Long-term sickness can present a challenging situation for employers to deal with and requires careful consideration of both the needs of the business and the health and well-being of the employee. With proper strategies in place, a long-term absence can be managed efficiently while ensuring fairness to the employee and compliance with legislation. 

Key considerations

  1. Communication: Whilst maintaining regular and supportive communication with the absent employee is crucial, the level and frequency of communication should be agreed with the employee early in the absence. The purpose of the communication should be to show support to the employee and their well-being and to understand their health status and potential return to work.

  2. Workplace adjustments: Consider reasonable adjustments to support the employee's return to work. This may include modifying work arrangements, providing assistive devices, adjusting working hours, or assigning alternative duties.

  3. Medical documentation: Request appropriate medical documentation from the employee, such as Fit Notes or reports from healthcare professionals, to understand their condition. This helps in determining any adjustments required as well as the likely timescale for a return to work.

  4. Occupational health support: In most cases of long-term sickness, it will be necessary to seek input from an occupational health professional to assess the employee's condition, provide expert advice, and suggest suitable adjustments which may allow them to return to work. 

  5. Return-to-work plan: Develop a structured return-to-work plan with the employee and relevant healthcare professionals which should outline the gradual re-introduction into the workplace, modified duties, and any ongoing support required.

  6. Review and monitoring: Regularly review the employee's progress and make adjustments to the return-to-work plan as needed. Frequent catch-up meetings should be held with the employee once they return and open lines of communication should be maintained to address any concerns or challenges that arise.

  7. Supportive policies: Review and update your company's policies and procedures to include clear guidelines on managing long-term absence, return-to-work processes, and reasonable adjustments. This helps establish a consistent and supportive framework for handling future cases.

Can an employee be fairly dismissed as a result of long-term sickness absence?

Yes, however dismissal in cases of long-term sickness absence should be considered a measure of last resort and a full process must be carried out.  An employer must be able to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to support the employee's return to work and that the sickness absence has caused disruption to the organisation's operations which cannot be sustained.  

Options to assist a return-to-work should be investigated and discussed with the employee, for instance, adjustments to the workplace, a phased return-to-work or alternative employment and employers should also keep a record of all communications, whether with the employee, line manager, other members of staff, or related specialists, concerning the employee’s absence and return-to-work.

Where the reason for absence relates to a condition which could be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010, there are additional obligations on an employer and additional care should be taken in those circumstances. 

The number of people not working in the UK due to long-term sickness has risen to a new record, official figures show. More than two and a half million people are not working due to health problems, the Office for National Statistics said. It blamed an increase in mental health issues in younger people and people suffering back and neck pain, possibly due to home working, for the rise. Typically, for every 13 people currently working, one person is long-term sick.


employment law