Managing Long-Term Ill Health

Managing Long-Term Ill Health

06 March 2018

Sickness and absence management is part and parcel of managing a team, but it can be particularly challenging when an employee suffers from long term ill health. Employers have a legal responsibility to support staff when it comes to managing sickness and absence and having the right policies and procedures in place is important, whatever size your company is. There are two aspects to managing Long-term Ill health, managing the absence and managing the return to work.

Managing Absence

Long-term health conditions can take many forms. There may be an initial extended period when someone is off work, for example, following a major operation. A condition such as cancer requires the employer to be as flexible as possible to help the individual concerned return to work. Someone with a mental health issue may require a different kind of support. There could, indeed, be a situation for some employees where several health conditions present themselves at the same time.

There are number of things that a business will have to consider according to ACAS, including:

  • Deciding whether someone needs to be employed to cover for an absent employee at an extra cost or if their work can be covered by existing staff taking over certain tasks.
  • How a business stays in contact with an employee while they are off sick and resolve issues as they occur, keep them up to date with company news and dealing with topics like sick pay.
  • There may well be a need to use an occupational health service to manage the absence as well as facilitate a return to work.
  • While someone is off sick, employers need to make sure that they don’t discriminate against individuals when new decisions are taken in the business. For example, if a pay rise is implemented and the employee is left out of this process, they could make a claim against the business for discrimination.

Long term illness requires an employer to be highly flexible.

Managing Long-Term Ill Health

Managing the return to work

When a person is ready to re-join the workforce there may be a range of adjustments that need to be considered. That can include a phased return, lighter duties or making physical changes to the work environment, for instance, if an employee is now classed as disabled.

Adjustments for those with long term illnesses can include necessary changes to the work environment, introducing flexibility such as allowing someone to work from home, employing technology to help the individual to do their job, and adjusting targets or changing responsibilities.

There’s no doubt that good communication lies at the heart of dealing with a long term illness. Simple adjustments in the workplace can make things easier for the individual but an employee might be reticent about stating their needs – either because they don’t want to be a perceived to be a burden or they are worried about losing their job. For the employer, putting an employee’s mind at rest and understanding their needs is vital and provides the framework for implementing sensible changes that make a real difference.

Getting input from occupational health services and/or employee’s doctor, can be an important way to not only understand the individual’s needs but also manage any changes that need to be made. Getting it right not only keeps employers on the right side of employment law but also ensures that the individual concerned gets the support they need.

What If the employee doesn’t return to work?

As an employer you are not expected to keep a job open indefinitely. If your employee is long-term sick then every effort must be made to ensure you have facilitated a return to work, including lighter duties, a different role and making reasonable adjustments to accommodate a return. However, if after all these processes the employee is unable to return then a dismissal can be made on the grounds of Ill Health. We advise extreme caution in following this option, steps to have taken before considering this option are:

  • Deal with the absence as described in your employee handbook or absence policy
  • Ensure communication with the employee has been open throughout the illness and that the employee has been consulted regarding their condition and return to work
  • Ask for permission from the employee and if granted seek a medical report from an independent medical practitioner
  • Formally review the employees job, responsibilities and capabilities, the medical report will be instrumental to doing this. In this review you should consider if there is another role within the organisation the employee can do and consider whether the position can be done part time if this would facilitate a return to work
  • Carry out a thorough risk assessment, involving the employee, use the information you have to conduct the assessment

After following this process, a decision can be determined if a return to work is feasible. In the event a return to work date is not foreseeable, and an alternative role, reduced hours or reasonable adjustments would not make a difference in the employee’s ability to return to work then a dismissal is practical.

This article should be used for information purposes only. Each case of long-term illness will be different and professional HR advice should be sought that is pertinent to the circumstances. If you need assistance managing long-term ill health, then get it solved. Call us on 07714 790024 or email