HR Hell – Dealing with Long-term Absence

Managing absence in the workplace is never an easy task. Even short episodes of illness need to be dealt with sensitively, professionally, and with clarity. It’s no surprise to learn that handling long-term absence is one of the most difficult problems faced by managers and Human Resource teams. It’s time consuming and a tricky area to get right.

Many managers are wary, and subsequently ineffective, in dealing with long-term absences. It’s a complex area, and each case has its own problems. Corporate businesses are better equipped to deal with long-term absenteeism, both in view of covering the workload, and having policies in place to deal with them. Small businesses on the other hand can suffer from both a lack of coherent policy, and in workload management.

What is the difference between short-term and long-term sickness?

Employees need to provide a fit note (used to be sick note) after 7 days of absence, and are considered to be long-term absentees after 4 weeks off. Recurrent short-term absence may indicate general ill health, and individuals should be encouraged to seek medical attention.

Key steps in managing long-term absence

You’ll need to engage regularly with the person who is absent from work. Communication is crucial. Keeping a dialogue open can be tricky as some employees may find the contact stressful. Sporadic phone calls to your employee are most likely to have a negative effect. Here are some primary steps in managing any long term absence.

  1. Arrange a specific time on a weekly or twice weekly basis to speak with your employee. Try to schedule a home visit if possible. Confirm all arrangements in writing. If the employee knows in advance when you will be contacting them, they are more likely to comply. If a phone call is too much, then regular email contact may be a solution.
  2. Keep a written record of contact and what has been discussed. You need to record any developments, treatments and timescales, which are essential in case of grievances.
  3. Request sick notes.
  4. Request copies of medical reports where appropriate.
  5. Be clear with information about sick pay and when it will reduce or stop.
  6. Keep your sick employee up to date with any changes or developments within the business. It’s important the absentee doesn’t feel even more isolated by hearing news from a colleague.
  7. It’s quite common for an employee to lose confidence whilst they are off sick. Put in some time and effort to build confidence. Helping your employee return to work should be your ultimate aim.
  8. It’s important to manage the difficult aspects of long-term absenteeism, especially if threatened with a tribunal. If you don’t, you’ll not only find yourself in legal hot water, you’ll lose respect from the team who are covering the workload.
  9. Consider whether you need to hire someone on a temporary contract.
  10. Last but not least, always seek proper advice. Fit for work is a government funded initiative offering free, expert and impartial advice to both employers and employees regarding health conditions at work and sickness absence. Guidance can also be sought from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Some legal obligations and considerations

There are a number of legal obligations and considerations to make as the business owner, including:

  1. Employees are still entitled to annual leave accrued during their time off sick.
  2. Flat pay rises across the board should be awarded to all employees, including those off sick. Individual, performance-related pay rises on the other hand are based on performance at work. If performance was poor prior to sick leave, you will need to consider if it was affected as a result of the employee’s health condition.
  3. If your employee becomes disabled as a result of his/her sickness, employers should make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the employees working conditions to enable them to return to work.
  4. Dismissal is an option if there is no prospect of the employee returning to work. To avoid a claim for unfair dismissal you will need to show that you acted reasonably and fairly, and used proper procedures.


Returning to work strategies


  1. If your employee is returning to work after recovering from a serious illness it may be wise to consider a phased return, with lighter duties and flexible hours. You’ll also need to heed the reasonable adjustments referred to above.
  2. A return-to-work interview provides an opportunity to welcome your employee back, explore the cause of their absence, get a better understanding of the problem, and to discuss any new working arrangements and expectations.
  3. Involve your employee in the decision-making with regard to them returning to work. Engaging with them is empowering; by not including them, they may end up feeling controlled and restricted.
  4. Give your employee opportunity to discuss their views and concerns at different stages of their return.

Reviewing absence prevention strategies

A period of employee absence gives you the opportunity to review prevention strategies. Promoting health and wellbeing in the workplace is evolving as a good business strategy. It’s not just about offering fitness and meditation classes. Building a sense of fulfilment at work is equally important. Managers need to respect and support their employees, assign appropriate tasks and set appropriate deadlines. Intervening in health problems early provides an opportunity to encourage and support pro-active treatment, which potentially reduces the number of days an employee is away for.