Inaction is costly! Return to Work Plans Are Free

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Inaction is costly! Return to Work Plans Are Free


Written by Sue Berry on 9th May 2017. Revised 25th March 2020.

8 min read

It’s not always easy to know what to do when someone goes off sick. How long do you wait until you speak to them? Can you make decisions when they are off sick? Can you contact them? So many questions!

What to do?

Many managers will ignore the person who is off sick. You’ve heard the adage “out of sight, out of mind”. Ignoring those who are off sick is not good practice. The longer someone is off, the harder it is for them to return to work.

It’s the manager’s job to take some form of action. What that is will depend on the reasons for the absence. But, what is certain is that action must be taken.

Fit Notes

You must manage the sickness absence immediately. After 7 days sickness the employee must provide a Fit Note. This will advise if the person can return to work in a phased or modified way, or if they should remain off work. The Fit Note provides the information you need to allow you to pay the employee company sick pay or statutory sick pay. The fit note belongs to the employee, but you should take a copy for your records.

Without the fit note the absence is unauthorised.

Understanding how to use the Fit Note

The fit note, or a hospital note, allows you to pay the employee SSP (Statutory Sick Pay) if they are eligible.

The fit note also allows the GP to suggest ways in which the employee can be supported back to work, rather than being simply signed off for a period of time. The GP’s assessment that the person can return to work is an indication to the employer that with some adjustments the employee can be integrated back into work.

So what adjustments might be appropriate?

  • A phased return to work. The employee will build up to their normal working hours over a period of time. This will be agreed with the employee. For example, over a four-week period the employee may work three half-days in week one, five half-days in week two, three half-days and to full days in week three and a full week in week four. This phased return should be documented and the progress should be monitored and amended if necessary. At the end of the phased return the employee should be provided with a letter confirming that normal working hours have been resumed.
  • A change to their duties. It may be appropriate to change some of the employee’s duties, or perhaps even put them into a completely different role. As with the phased return any changes must be documented so that the employee is made aware of whether the changes are temporary or permanent.
  • A change in working hours. This may be a reduction in hours, or an adjustment in the start and finish time. Again, document the change and make clear to the employee if this is a temporary change or a permanent change.
  • A workplace adjustment. Adjustments may include modification to workstations; provision of magnifying screens; dictation programs; ergonomic furniture or a modification of the work premises.

The fit note will recommend what the GP considers appropriate to get the person back to work. There is no legal requirement to comply with the suggestions in the fit note. So, if the suggested changes are impractical, or you simply choose not to implement them, the fit note should be treated as a sick note and they will remain signed off until the expiry of the fit note. TimelessTime recommends that wherever possible you attempt some adjustment to help get the employee back to work.

Fit for work assessment

Until March 2018 in England and Wales, and May 2018 in Scotland, once someone had been absent from work for 4 weeks they could be referred for a Fit for Work Assessment. This service has now been withdrawn, but a Fit for Work website is still available with information for employers.

Whilst the occupational health assessment service is no longer available, it doesn’t mean that you abdicate your responsibility to manage the sickness absence. There are many organisations that offer fit-for-work style occupational health assessments.

If someone has been absent for a few weeks you may choose to ask them to attend an occupation health assessment. The employee is under no obligation to agree and you can’t force them to attend. However, your decision about how to manage the sickness absence can only be made on the information you have available to you.

TimelessTime recommends that you do seek an occupational health assessment. This allows you to gather all the data you need to make a decision about how to proceed, particularly when someone is absent for a prolonged period.

The report you get is only as good as the questions you ask. It’s critical that you ask the right questions. This is done by reviewing the job description and the work environment and asking questions of the occupational health practitioner that inform you on what changes may be needed to manage the sickness absence. Each request for information is different and therefore the questions will be different. Simply asking questions that give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is not very helpful. Give us a call if you need help developing questions.

Understanding your sickness absence data

Occupational health report

Once you have the occupational health assessment, decisions can be made. Think about what can be done to ease the employee back into work. The various options available have been discussed above.

The decision will depend on the circumstances. Can a reasonable adjustment be made? Can a phased return be managed? Is the employee capable of undertaking their current role, or a revised role?

Sometimes it may not be possible to ease the employee back into work. Instead they may need to be managed out of the organisation since they are not capable of performing their role due to ill-health. Where this is the outcome, the process must be managed sensitively and with dignity.

Inaction, whilst most palatable to managers, makes the situation worse. Inaction is costly.

Identifying sickness absence patterns

In order to determine when action is needed your firm should have a process. Some firms use the disciplinary policy to manage sickness absence. This is really negative and is unlikely to help the sick employee feel that they are being treated sympathetically. Much better to have a sickness absence policy designed to manage persistent short-term absenteeism and long-term sickness. They are managed in different ways.

The Bradford Index is useful tool to measure sickness absence. Designed by Bradford University School of Management it can highlight the disruption caused by those taking one or two sick days on regular basis, as opposed to someone on long term sick. The example below highlights this.

The Bradford Index calculation is: B = (SxS) x D

S is the total number of absences over a defined period.
D is the total number of days absent over the same defined period.

So, if someone is off sick on 5 occasions with a total of twelve days absence the calculation is: (5 x 5) x 12 = 300.

Whereas, for someone is off sick once in the defined period for a duration of twelve days the calculation will be: (1 x 1) x 12 = 12.

The index should not be used as a way of disciplining staff who are genuinely sick. It should be used, as it was intended, as a means of identifying employees whose absence needs to be managed. It is the company sickness absence policy and procedure that determines how the sickness is handled.

The cost of sickness absence

At the risk of repeating myself – ignoring sickness absence is costly. When someone is absent their work still has to be done. Colleagues pick up the slack (perhaps attracting overtime payments), or for more long-term sickness, temporary staff might be employed. Management time, reduced productivity and the costs of occupational sick pay or SSP payments must all be factored in to the cost of sickness absence. So, it’s best to manage absence as early as possible.

So, what you should you do?

Review your sickness absence procedure. If you currently rely on your disciplinary procedure, write a separate sickness absence policy and procedure. This will deal with sickness absence in a more positive manner than your disciplinary procedure. Ultimately, a decision may be made to dismiss due to ill-health, but a sickness absence policy is a much more positive and more palatable process to follow.

Secondly, train managers in how to handle sickness absence. And train them in how they should handle difficult conversations – many of the conversations in sickness absence management are ‘difficult’. Call us if you would like help with management training.

And, finally use the process you put in place. Then trust the process. It will work for you.

Call us if you would like help streamlining your current sickness absence process, or if you need to develop your process from scratch. Call us too if you need help mid-case.