Managing Employees On Long-Term Sickness Absence

A national care-provider client had a number of employees on long-term sick. Many of these employees had been off work for six months or more (and in some cases over a year).

The employer had liability for sick pay during this time, which was not an insignificant cost to the business.

We assisted this client with the aim of either placing these individuals back into work or to terminate their employment due to ill-health capability.

Firstly, we advised the client to understand the precise nature of each employee’s condition and how it impacted on their ability to attend work, and advised the client how to hold initial meetings with the employees to discuss their health and prognosis.

In the more complex cases, it was necessary to seek consent from the individuals for their GPs to provide a medical report. By obtaining such a report, it allowed the employer to understand better the likely timescales involved for recovery and to gain a professional opinion on what adjustments may be appropriate (if any).

After establishing the nature of each individual’s illness, we advised:

  • Whether there were any reasonable adjustments that the employer could make to the individuals’ roles to enable them to return to work. This may be, for an employee with mobility issues, for example, to offer extended breaks or remove lifting duties, or change the employee’s place of work which did not have any stairs;
  • On the possibility of suitable alternative roles which would allow the individual to return to work within the organisation if they could not continue in their present role. Again, for a person with mobility problems, it may be feasible for them to move a less physically demanding role (i.e. an office role); and
  • Finally if, after discussion, there were no adjustments that could be made, nor any suitable alternative employment offered, then we considered the remaining option of dismissal on the grounds of ill-health capability, balancing the interests of the employee against the needs of the employer. We ensured that our client was guided through a fair dismissal process and was confident in making this decision.

The process is a fairly sensitive one and it was important to navigate both the sensitive nature of employee ill-health and the legal risks involved, such as the potential for a disability discrimination claim and/or a claim for unfair dismissal (which could result in a costly claim).

With careful advice at each stage of the process, we were able to achieve the appropriate outcome for the employer as regards each employee and in all cases either place them back into work, or terminate their employment on the grounds of ill-health capability.

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