Helping those on long-term sick leave back to work

Kate Palmer from HR experts Peninsula outlines what employers need to do when it comes to helping employees who have been on long-term sick leave back to work.

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It can be difficult for employers to respond to situations when an employee is on long-term sickness. After all, long-lasting absences can cause a disturbance to the business, particularly if the role needs to be covered by someone else. Getting this employee back into work will likely be a top priority for a company, but, as a result, the employer may need to consider making adjustments to the role.

The first thing that should be remembered is that, if the sickness amounts to a disability, employers will be under a statutory duty to consider and implement any reasonable adjustments which could help the employee back into work and in conducting their daily duties. Failure to do this could result in a potentially costly claim at the employment tribunal for disability discrimination. Even if the condition does not amount to a disability, adjustments may still be crucial in assisting an employee in both returning to their role and maintaining it going forward.

Reasonable adjustments

Employers in this situation should first hold a meeting with the employee to discuss their situation and, specifically, if they have any suggestions for what could help them at work. The business may also wish to seek further medical advice, such as a report from the employee’s GP or a referral to Occupational Health, which can also help to identify what adjustments would assist the employee. This may involve making physical changes to their working environment like moving them to other areas of the building or providing additional equipment to assist them in their role. Alternatively, it may be that changes to working hours are required, or the employee should be allowed to work from home. Any adjustment must be confirmed in writing and its effectiveness monitored going forward.

When considering whether an adjustment is reasonable, an employer should consider how effective the change will be, how difficult it is to do it, how long it will take and what the costs involved are.  What may be reasonable for one employer may not be reasonable for another, especially if they are a smaller business with minimal resources. That said, employers should always exercise caution in this situation. If they are later faced with a tribunal claim, they will have to demonstrate why such an adjustment was not reasonable for the business.

If making adjustments to a particular role is not deemed possible, an employer may seek to redeploy the employee to an alternative position within the business, if such a role is available. There is no specific legal duty on the employer to maintain the employee’s current salary level, provided the employee does agree to move to a lower-graded post. Whether it would be considered a reasonable adjustment to do so will, again, depend upon the specific circumstances and the resources of the business.

*Kate Palmer is Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula.


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