Employer guidance on managing long-term sickness absence

Last updated: October 21st, 2022

Employer guidance on managing long-term sickness absence

Sickness absence is an inevitable occurrence that almost every employer will encounter at one stage or another.

Long-term sickness absence, however, is the term used when an employee is absent for four or more weeks. This type of absence tends to pose a more difficult challenge for employers. If you have no fixed idea of when an employee might return to work, this can impact the daily operations of your business. Alternative temporary arrangements can put strain on the rest of your team and who can’t be expected to pick up any slack indefinitely.

Here we look at how to prepare for and handle any incidences of long-term sickness absence.

Outline timeframes in your Contracts of Employment

All new employees should immediately be provided with a Contract of Employment. This contract should set out a clear policy and procedure that will govern illness-related absences and also define what constitutes:

  • Short-term absence
  • Long-term absence, or
  • Unauthorised absence

You should also make your employees aware of your long-term sick leave policy. This will ensure that they are aware of how this form of absence will be handled and what procedures to expect if this issue arises.

Conducting an informal welfare meeting

The most efficient step when investigating a prolonged employee absence is to conduct an ‘informal welfare meeting’. This is a very useful approach when an employee is out of work for four weeks or more on certified sick leave.

An informal welfare meeting is a useful way to maintain communication, clarify the nature of the employee’s incapacity, and confirm how long they’re likely to be absent.

The meeting should cover the following:

  • The nature of the employee’s illness.
  • What treatment their medical professional has recommended.
  • Any workplace accommodations that the medical professional has recommended for you to consider facilitating their return to work.
  • How the employee feels about returning to work.
  • When they expect to return to work.

Requesting medical documentation

If an employee misses one day of work through illness, it’s not likely to be a major issue. In most cases, the employee returns and completes a simple Back to Work form.

On the other hand, if an employee misses three or more days, most employers will look for a medical certificate. This is something you can insist on as an employer and this requirement should be clearly outlined in the relevant absence policy. When requesting a medical certificate, it’s important to ensure it’s provided by a qualified medical practitioner registered with the Medical Council of Ireland.

Following on from the informal welfare meeting, you may also decide that it’s necessary to request an employee’s medical records. You’ll need to notify the employee of your intention to do so and why you are making this request. Before obtaining records from the employee’s GP, you must:

  • Formally notify the employee in writing that it’s proposed to make the application.
  • Obtain the employee’s consent in writing.

If the medical professional either does not provide, or states that it’s not possible to provide an expected return-to-work date, your policy should reserve your right to arrange a consultation with your own Occupational Physician at your expense. This will give you an opportunity to gather further information and assess any recommendations such as reduced working hours, lighter duties, or an alternative role.

Conducting a medical capability hearing

Once you’ve obtained the employee’s medical records and any relevant reports, you may need to conduct a ‘Medical Capability Hearing’. This hearing should discuss the following:

  • The employee’s long-term absence.
  • The content of the employee’s medical report(s).
  • Whether there are any “reasonable adjustments” to the workplace or role that could be implemented to facilitate a return to work.
  • The likelihood of a return to work in the foreseeable future.
  • The feasibility of keeping the employee’s job open.

Dismissal due to sickness

If all other avenues have been exhausted, dismissal may be considered as a last resort. If this is the only option available to you, you must show that the procedure you used to reach the decision was fair and reasonable. Failure to comply with fair procedures will expose you to a claim for unfair dismissal.

Dismissals due to medically certified incapacity must meet certain criteria, including:

  • The employer has all material facts concerning the employee’s sickness.
  • The employee has been given enough notice of the fact that their capability to fulfil their role is being investigated and may lead to dismissal.
  • The employee has been given the option to influence the employer’s decision.
  • The employer is seen to offer reasonable accommodations for the employee to return to work.

If the employee’s long-term sickness was brought about by their work activities, it’s still possible that this may lead to dismissal which may require specialist advice.

Need help handling long-term sickness absences?

If you need help handling long-term sickness absences, our expert consultants are here for you. To speak to a consultant now, call 01 886 0350 or request a callback here.

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