Sickness absence and managing long-term sick leave
Published 19 December 2022
Being off work sick for any period of time can have repercussions - and in some serious cases it can even lead to dismissal.
Getting ill is inevitable and most of us will occasionally need time of work because of sickness.
If you are absent from work for a short period of time, you should not have too much to worry about.
This is providing you comply with your employer’s absence reporting requirements.
If you are off on long-term sick leave, you will be required to keep in touch with work.
You will also be expected to attend or take part in welfare checks and meetings, which can feel like an additional worry at a time of extreme vulnerability.
A long-term sickness absence is usually defined as a period of continuous absence of more than four weeks.
If you are off work sick for a lengthy period of time, your employer should follow any internal long-term absence policy that it has in place
It is a procedure that will include monitoring and reviewing your absence and identifying any support needed, which can help you to return to work.
A fair policy should typically have a number of stages before consideration is ever given to dismissing you on health grounds.
In some cases it can be considered reasonable for your employer to dismiss you due to the time you have been off sick and because you are no longer able to do your job [1 cited 19.12.22]
If you have two or more years’ service a fair process has to be followed and there are a number of factors, which we will look at shortly, that must be considered.
For any period of sickness absence - regardless of if it is a day or two or six months, or even a year – good communication is vital.
Always notify your employer as soon as you can of any illness that makes you unable to attend work.
Your employer should make it clear how it expects you to notify it of your absence e.g. a telephone call to your manager/supervisor.
It is important to make sure you comply with any absence notification policy to the best of your ability.
If you are off work for seven days or less, you do not need to give your employer a fit note (sometimes called a ‘sick note’) or other proof of sickness from a healthcare professional [2 cited 19.12.22]
You must give your employer a ‘fit note’ if you have been ill for more than seven days in a row and have taken sick leave. This includes non-working days, such as weekends and bank holidays.
The fit note will say the you are either ‘not fit for work’ or ‘may be fit for work.’
Good, prompt communication explaining why you are unable to attend work because of any type of illness can stop the situation escalating.
If you unreasonably fail to inform your employer you cannot come into work it can be treated as an unauthorised absence [3 cited 19.12.22] This can lead to disciplinary action being taken against you.
If you fail to communicate with your employer during a long-term absence it may lead to decisions being made without your input, which could have serious repercussions for you.
So, if you are ever off work sick for a lengthy period of time, and it can happen to any of us, here are some of the typical steps your employer can take to manage a long-term sickness absence.
Understanding the reason for your absence
Whether your absence is caused by an accident, injury or medical condition, your employer should want to gain a good understanding of it.
It can be done to identify any support you may need and to establish how best to manage the situation.
Your employer may want to meet regularly with you or stay in touch to keep track of your recovery and understand any medical advice you have been given.
The purpose of it will be to attempt to discover when you will be fit enough to return to work.
Contact with work can feel uncomfortable when on long-term sick leave. So, talk to your employer about you preferred method of contact and staying in touch.
You may be asked to attend an occupational health assessment [4 cited 19.12.22]
It is a medical assessment by an occupational health professional to assess your health and provide your employer with recommendations.
The assessment also gives the employer instructions on what it must do to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for you.
If you have a disability
If you are deemed to be disabled, your employer should consider reasonable adjustments to help you to return to work e.g. a phased return, a change to working environment or a new piece of equipment.
The Equality Act defines a disability as a physical or mental condition which has a substantial and long-term impact on your ability to do normal day to day activities [5 cited 19.12.22]
The Act can also cover you if you have, or have had a mental health condition, which has lasted 12 months or more.
If you have a disability your employer can make some adjustments around 'trigger points' for absence, if it uses a trigger point system to review an absence when it reaches a specific number of weeks/months.
Reasonable adjustments can include not counting some or all sickness absence related to a disability towards any trigger points, or increasing the number of absences that will trigger a review.
Absence management process
A fair absence management process should have a number of stages.
In the first instance your employer should arrange to meet with you to discuss the long-term absence.
It is usually a meeting that will discuss the cause of your illness, a possible date for your return to work, arrange medical reviews if necessary and seek to establish any support you may require.
What is discussed and agreed at the meeting will be reviewed at a suitable time arranged.
If there are subsequent meetings then they are likely to follow a similar format to the initial one.
Where a return to work remains unlikely, the process could move to a stage where dismissal is considered.
Meeting to consider dismissal due to ill health
Dismissal because of a long-term illness should be a last resort.
It is something which will be considered if all reasonable adjustments and support offered and provided to facilitate your return to work have proved unsuccessful. And, if up to date medical evidence indicates a return to work in the near future is unlikely.
At a formal meeting at which your dismissal is being considered on health grounds a trade union representative or colleague can accompany you.
It is advisable that you inform your employer you wish to bring a companion to the meeting. Their support and active participation can be vital.
If the you cannot do your job because there are no reasonable adjustments that can be made, it may be fair for your employer to dismiss you, even if you are disabled.
Challenging a dismissal because of long-term sickness
If you believe a decision to dismiss you is unjust or the process conducted that led to that outcome was unfair, then you can appeal against it.
If a decision to dismiss you on health grounds is unreasonable it can amount to an unfair dismissal [6 cited 19.12.22]
Or, if you have a disability it can be found to amount to disability discrimination [7 cited 19.12.22]
If you wish to challenge such a decision you should always seek expert advice and support to do so if you can.