How employers can effectively tackle long term sickness issues

Alex Wortley of e-days discusses the business challenges posed by long term sickness and how employers can tackle the problem.

If a single employee is absent for a long period of time, the entire business can suffer. The rest of the team will have to spread themselves too thin to pick up the slack, so it’s inevitable that sales opportunities will be missed, and orders will go unfulfilled. It should come as no surprise, then, that long term sickness costs UK businesses nearly £30bn each year.

Long Term Sickness Is an issue that all employers can face – but managed correctly, it doesn’t have to be a big problem.

What are the most common causes of long term sickness?

The CIPD recently released the results of their 2019 Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey. They found that the top five causes of long term sickness are, in order:

  • Mental ill health
  • Stress
  • Musculoskeletal injuries
  • Acute medical conditions
  • Accidents and injuries, both work and non-work related

The bad news is that long term sickness is an inevitable part of the working world. It’s not going away, and it’ll always be a problem.

The good news is that, as a HR specialist, you’re better equipped than almost anyone else to safeguard your business against the problems that long term sickness can cause.

Defining long term sickness – how long is “long term”?

What does long term sickness mean to you? How long would an employee have to be absent before you consider their absence a “long term” problem?

There might be as many answers to this question are there are HR specialists in the world. Nonetheless, certain bodies have attempted to establish definitions to clear up the issue.

For the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), a period of absence that lasts anything up to four weeks still counts as a short-term sickness. If the absence lasts more than four weeks, it’s a long term problem. They go on to say that a number of episodes of absence, each lasting fewer than four weeks, can be defined as a “recurring short term sickness absence”.

The CIPD’s definition of long term absence differs greatly. For them, a long term sickness is any condition that causes eight or more consecutive days of absence.

It’s up to you to define what “long term sickness” means for your business. Your definition will determine the processes and policies you put in place to deal with the issue. So consider how much each individual employee’s day is worth to your business, and think about when a period of absence will stop being an inconvenience, and instead become a real problem.

Tools that can minimise the impact of long term sickness

If you want to safeguard your business against the damaging effects of long term sickness, you will need:

  • An employee wellbeing program
  • A good absence management system
  • A flexible and supportive return to work process

An Employee Wellbeing Program

An employee wellbeing program involves removing common causes of stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction and conflict from the workplace, and replacing them with things that promote wellness and happiness.

Many factors can contribute to a good employee wellbeing program. Common features include:

  • Policies that encourage employees to eat well and exercise, such as cycle to work schemes and subsidised gym memberships.
  • A focus on the redemptive qualities of nature, which means filling workplaces with plants, earthy colours and natural light.
  • Policies that promote a good work/life balance, including flexible working and generous parental leave.
  • Encouraging employees to “give something back”, through offering paid leave for volunteering, and through matching donations for fundraising efforts.

Employee wellbeing is a complicated issue, but businesses that do it well can look forward to improved productivity, increased staff retention, improved relationships between staff and management, and an overall more energised, motivated and engaged workforce.

But can employee wellbeing prevent cases of long term sickness? Perhaps not directly, and certainly not entirely. But happy employees tend to take less time off, and healthy people tend to get sick less frequently. There is strong evidence that physical exercise can help people cope with many of the leading causes of long term sickness, including stress, anxiety and other mental health issues.

They always say that a prevention is better than a cure. Think of your employee wellbeing policy as your preventative measures against long term sickness.

An Absence Management System

A good absence management system will help you reduce the negative effects that long term sickness can have on your business. If you can run reports on specific absence types, you’ll be able to fully grasp the impact that absenteeism is having on your business. And if you can understand the underlying reasons behind the absences in your company, you might be able to act to deal with the issue.

Automated Bradford Factor scoring will let you set trigger points, so that managers can be alerted as soon as any employees show patterns of potentially problematic absenteeism. In this way, you can intervene and help before the issue gets any worse.

A Good Return to Work Policy

You’ll need clear policies in place to help any employee returning from a period of long term absence to ease back into work. Your priority is to ensure that they’re not placed in any situations that might interfere with their recovery, though you also need to make sure that their recovery doesn’t cause any problems for any other members of the team.

Be prepared to make “reasonable adjustments” to help recovering employees return to work. A reasonable adjustment could be anything, from allowing someone to temporarily work from home, to installing more wheelchair ramps, to finding a desk job for an employee who’s currently unable to work a more physically demanding role.

Finally, you should conduct routine return to work interviews whenever an employee returns from any period of absence, short or long term. This way, you’ll be able to identify the sort of measures you could make to help the returning employee, and to make any further instances of unplanned absence less likely.

Long term absence and short term absence need an absence management policy

All of these measures, from employee wellbeing programs to return to work interviews, should be treated as part of your wider absence management policy.

An absence management policy will minimise the impact that all forms of unplanned absence have on your business, while making it less likely that employees will need to take unplanned absence in the first place.

When it comes to dealing with long term sickness, your absence management policy can act as both a prevention and a cure.

Read our guide to designing and implementing an absence management policy for your business here.