Long-term sickness absence is often defined as a continuous absence from work, typically four weeks or more. An absence from work can be related to physical heath, mental health, and/or both. When think about mental health, the most prevalent conditions responsible for long-term absences are stress, anxiety, and depression.

Many incorrectly believe that if someone takes time off work due to health, they will not return as productive, if they even return to work at all. Attitudes like this ignore the agency that employers have in supporting their staff to return to work, and their importance in a staff members overall recovery.

It is important as an employer to effectively manage the process of long-term sick leave, from the beginning of the employee’s absence from work to their eventual return to work.
A timely, well-planned, and well-executed return-to-work process will have substantial positive benefits for an employee’s wellbeing and rehabilitation and could also prevent potential relapses

It is important to follow a process and avoid sudden decisions, which may not only pro-long the employee’s return to work but may also potentially leave you open to discrimination claims.

Once it becomes known an absence is likely to be long term, it is best to have a supportive conversation with the employee as soon as possible. While this meeting will be formal, it is important to offer flexibility and try to alleviate any pressure or concern the employee has. In this meeting, you will need to work together to develop a return-to-work plan, and a plan for reviewing and monitoring the employee’s recovery and wellbeing.

Below, we have included some key messages for line managers and HR leads to consider when supporting employees to return to work.

Key messages for line managers

  • There is no approach that will work for everyone.
    When supporting employees to return to work following long-term sick leave, there is no single approach that will work for regardless of the situation. It is important that you use your existing relationship, and knowledge of the employee, to work collaboratively on an approach that works.
  • Line management is crucial in the process.
    Empathy and understanding are crucial in supporting an employee during the process. Being effective at managing and supporting an individual will be vital in making any process.

    Having a positive relationship with a line manager makes it more likely that an employee will successfully return to work. It is important to recognise that while line managers can be a huge asset during the process, they can also be a negative contributing factoring.
  • Stay in regular contact with the employee
    While there are no clear set rules around levels of contact during absence. Adopting a policy of ‘light touch’ communication is best. Keeping an employee up to date with the organisation helps reinforce the fact they are still a part of the team.

    When engaging with an employee, it is important be sensitive, co-ordinated, and focused around supporting recovery and wellbeing. Employees should not be subject to undue pressure to return prematurely and not rush back to work if not ready.
  • Seek support if needed
    It is important to recognise this experience might be challenging for you. Use internal HR for support, particularly around internal policies around absence, and workplace adjustments. Whether or not there are internal staff members you can speak too, there is also external support through occupational health practitioners and other services you can use.

Key messages for HR decision makers

  • Supporting return to work requires robust systems policies
    To be effective at supporting an employee to return to work, employers need to have a transparent way of monitoring and evaluating how the process is going. It falls upon the organisation to take the lead in making sure not only the employee who is absent feels supported, but also the individual who is supporting the returning employee feels empowered and confident about the process.
  • Consider who should support the returning employee
    In many instances, the individual supporting an employee to return to work will be their line manager as they are most likely person to have an established relationship with that person prior to their absence. It is important to recognise though that this is not always appropriate. For some individuals, their line manager may be a factor in their long-term sickness absence.

    Therefore, it is important when the line manager is a contributing factor, that you explore if there are alternatives in the organisation that can support with the return-to-work process.
  • Main regular contact with both parties
    Line managers are often hesitant to contact employees while they are off work. However, maintaining contact with the employee during their sickness absence is generally both welcomed by the employee and associated with a range of positive return-to-work outcomes. You should encourage the line manager to maintain informal, non-work-related contact while the employee is absent and support them in doing this. This may relieve some of the employee’s anxiety regarding return to work and so make for a more successful return-to-work process. However, you do need to be sensitive to situations where the manager has contributed in some way to the employee’s health condition (for example due to work-related stress) and ensure that, in these cases, someone else takes responsibility for maintaining contact with the absent employee.
  • Internal and external support
    When maintaining effective management of a sickness absence, it is important to recognise that not everyone will have experience of supporting sickness absence, and so may need support and guidance. At different points, staff may need additional support understanding the process and agreeing next steps. As the HR lead, it is important to recognise that the responsibility of providing internally falls on you.

    Seeking external support, through Occupational Practitioners and Union representation are also two great ways to gather more knowledge and insight on a subject. Organisations should welcome additional support and not see it as a weakness on their part.

Most staff who experience mental ill health will recover and return to being a valuable and productive member of the team. However, on some occasions, even with adjustments in place, a team member’s performance, conduct or continued absence may warrant further action.

Before taking action, you should consider whether:

Additional adjustments or further support may improve performance or conduct

Other lighter duties or a transfer to different role may be available.

If further action is necessary, the manager must follow the organisation’s procedures for handling these matters and ensure that a fair process is completed

For additional Support:

NICE Guideline, Workplace health: long-term sickness absence and capability to work, November 2019

Equality Act, the Employment Rights Act and the Health and Safety at Work etc Act.

Managing sickness absence – part of employer’s general duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their employees (Health and Safety at Work Act (1974).

Maintaining accurate sickness absence records part of the duty to assess any workplace risks/ hazards: (Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999)