Supporting absent staff

Remember, the longer a person is off work the more difficult and less likely it is for them to return. Barriers to them returning can develop surprisingly quickly and are often different from the original reason for going off work.

For example, someone might go off sick with back pain, not be well managed and end up feeling depressed and too anxious to return because they have become isolated away from the workplace. If barriers are allowed to develop they can take months to overcome. Examples of other barriers are:

  • Anxiety, distress and low mood
  • Reduced confidence and lack of self-esteem
  • Financial difficulties
  • Altered role within the family
  • Unhelpful beliefs and expectations about pain, work and healthcare

The employer can play a key role in preventing the development of barriers.

Key points in this are:

  • Maintain contact – telephone your absent employee, keep in regular touch.
  • Encourage the employee to visit the workplace.
  • Encourage active rehabilitation while off work

Maintain contact

This is one of the most important things for an employer to do when staff are off sick. Contact can be a sensitive issue as some employees may feel they might be pressed to come back to work too early, but without contact, those who are absent may feel increasingly out of touch and undervalued.

It is a key responsibility of the manager to keep in regular contact with any staff who are absent. They might not know the individual and should be able to handle any sensitive issues. The responsibility should only be passed to others if there are sound reasons for doing so.

Make sure the conversation is clearly focused on their health and well-being and their return to work. Try to focus as much on what the employee can do, as well as things they may need help with.

Remember that there could be psycho-social factors affecting the employee. It is unlikely that the person will feel confident discussing these unless the conversations are handled in a sensitive and empathetic way. Try to:

  • Create a climate of trust by agreeing the frequency and reasons for keeping in contact with absent employees.
  • Consider training for your managers to help them get the most out of contact.
  • Keep a note of contacts made.
  • Be flexible - treat each case individually but on a fair and consistent basis.
  • Welcome your employee back after their absence.
  • Give your employees the opportunity to discuss, in private, concerns about their health or other matters that are affecting their performance or attendance.
  • Remember that medication can have side effects on things like physical stamina, mood, machinery operation and safety critical tasks.

Make sure that you do not:

  • Wait until someone is on long-term sick leave before taking action.
  • Make assumptions about an employee's situation.
  • Say that colleagues are under pressure or that work is piling up.
  • Forget that recovery times for the same condition can vary significantly from person to person.

Impact of length of time off work

The longer someone is off work, the harder it is for them to get back to work and the greater the chances that they will remain off for a prolonged period. This is not because they are being awkward, it is because of the ease with which barriers to return to work develop.

Encourage active rehabilitation while off work

Staff take time off sick because they are unable to do their work. It is very often the case that the best way to overcome an MSD is to remain active this might mean modifying tasks and times.

Staff off work should be encouraged to be active. It should not be frowned upon if staff are seen out walking, or in the shops - it should be encouraged. The sooner they can do activities like this in a safe controlled way, the sooner they will be able to get back into work.

Health professionals will be encouraging early rehabilitation so it is much better if this message is reinforced by the employer.

As recovery progresses it is good to encourage staff to come into work and see how they can cope in the work environment.

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