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Supporting Staff through Sickness

In this section we look at the ways in which you can support your staff while they are off sick.

Maintain contact

Maintain positive and regular contact with your employee to make them feel more valued and prevent them from feeling isolated.  Assure the employee that you will contact them at regular agreed times (usually weekly), setting aside time for them to talk to you about any support they need.

Using Occupational Health (OH)

OH services are all about making sure your staff are fit for the work they do, and how their work affects their health. OH can provide support and guidance on how to support your staff and on making reasonable adjustments to allow the employee to remain in the workplace or return to work.

Early Intervention

Rapid access to treatment is a system which secures rehabilitation and occupational health treatment for Council employees with a view to facilitating a return to work.  These services include Physiotherapy, Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and accessing Occupational Health (OH)

Impact on the team

Talk to your employee about their illness and ask how they would like you to communicate this to the team and /or Council. Be clear, positive and supportive with both the employee and the team focusing on the work that needs doing and how this will be managed not the absence and/or reason for absence.  Make a plan of action to ensure services are minimally disrupted and your team are not over-stretched when covering workloads, e.g. does work need re prioritising.

Fit note, sick note

The 'Fit Note' is a written note issued by GPs or consultants working in conjunction with occupational health (OH), detailing how an employer can help the employee return to work after a period of absence. It can also be used as a statement of not being fit for work. The fit note may also state that your employee may be fit for work, in which case the GP believes that returning to work will aid in their recovery and should also provide details on how to get the employee back into work.

Ill health retirement

If your employee becomes seriously ill and alternative duties or redeployment isn't an option, then they can apply for ill health retirement. To be eligible the employee must work or have worked for the Council and have been in the Pension Scheme for at least two years. They should apply through their line manager for a referral to OH using the appropriate forms on-line.  The application is then assessed by a medical advisor and if they advise they are eligible then the employee will be given opportunity to access their pension at the relevant Tier.

Maintain contact

Positive and regular contact with your employee is crucial, and can help them feel supported and valued, and prevent them from feeling isolated. Talk to your employee about the nature of their illness, its impact on their work and likely duration, as soon as they report their absence from work. If you don't take their first call, contact the employee at the earliest opportunity to have this discussion.

Aside from the formal requirements, weekly contact with employees is recommended for illnesses lasting several weeks, as well as for illnesses that will result in a longer period of absence. However each case will be slightly different due to the nature of the employee's illness, so the frequency of contact should be discussed and agreed with the employee.

As well as agreeing to the frequency of contact, make sure you also set aside time to fully discuss their absence and any support they may need. Always remind your employee that you will be keeping in contact with them during their absence and that you are there to help facilitate their return to work.

Helpful questions to ask your employee include:

  • How are they doing?
  • Are they making progress?
  • Are they receiving appropriate support and treatment?
  • Are they waiting for physiotherapy, counselling, appointments?
  • What parts of their current job can't the employee do?
  • When might the employee feel ready to return to work?
  • Can they do minimal or adjusted duties?
  • What can you do for your employee? i.e. facilitate easier access to physiotherapy, counselling etc.; make adjustments to hours or duties; explore possibilities of temporary alternative work.

To find out more about providing any help your employee needs, see sections on rapid access to treatment, phased return, making reasonable adjustments and redeployment.

For longer absences, update the employee about any work changes that have happened during their absence, to prevent them from feeling isolated. Keep your employee in the loop by including them in emails about work, so they can keep an eye on things while they are absent or catch up when they return. This will help them alleviate any worries about their work, and who is covering for them.

For longer absences, an active case management approach will be adopted to manage the absence. This approach is when you the line manager, human resources, occupational health, the employee and (where appropriate) the GP or other medical professional work together to actively manage the absence. Referral to OH is necessary for this process; please see sections on word icon medical referral [60kb]

Occupational Health

Occupational Health (OH) services are all about making sure your staff are fit for the work they do, and how their work affects their health.

As a line manager you should focus on the impact the employee's health is having on their ability to undertake their role, as opposed to the detailed nature of the health complaint and any treatment they may be receiving. OH can provide you with further support and guidance around how to support your staff and any reasonable adjustments which could be made to allow the employee to remain in the workplace or return to work.

Make sure you discuss with employees the reasons for referring them to OH, so that they understand and are fully aware of the reasons for referral. The employee should also be given a copy of the referral letter.

You need to be aware that confidentiality principles place constraints on OH professionals in regard to the release of the personal medical information of staff. These apply in all cases.

It is helpful to familiarise yourself with the referral process for OH so that you know what to do, how to make the referral and likely timeframe's so that you can communicate this to your employee too. You will receive an OH report from them following the appointment detailing their advice and/or recommendations. If you feel you have any questions contact HR so they can arrange further questions for the OH adviser to consider. It is useful to remember that OH may not know the demands of your department, so the more you can put into the referral the easier it will be for them to understand how the role might impact on the individual and their particular health circumstances.

Early Intervention

Rapid access to treatment is a system which secures rehabilitation and occupational health treatment for Council employees with a view to facilitating a return to work which is as fast as is practical and reasonable.

Early intervention such as occupational therapy, physiotherapy or counselling is important for preventing acute conditions becoming chronic and securing successful rehabilitation. Evidence also suggests that earlier interventions in a period of sickness absence are more effective than waiting for an indicator to trigger action.

For example, in cases where appropriate, referral to physiotherapy in the first week of sickness can have your team member rehabilitated back into work by the time they would normally have been having the first review of their case - triggered by an indicator. This benefits the organisation, your team member and your customers.

Impact on the Team

It's important to talk to your employee about their illness, and consider the length of sickness, cover options, what they want others to know and how regular to keep in contact.

It is important to work with your team to manage the impact of the absent employee. One way to do this is to make sure other team members know how to carry out each other's duties. Discussing and implementing contingency plans in the event of an absence with your team will not only maintain continuity of workflow but will also empower your team in being actively involved in the solution to the problem. The contingencies will be especially useful in the event of a longer term absence such as a serious or terminal illness, or if the employee decides on early or ill-health retirement.

Make sure you have an open door policy to discuss the impact of the employee's absence. Be clear, positive and supportive when discussing matters with both the person who is off sick and the rest of the team. This will help your team to remain positive and supportive of the person who is away sick, and reduce any gossip.

Your employee may not want colleagues to be informed of their illness. You should respect their need for privacy and be sensitive where possible and within reason, whilst making sure that the service provided is minimally disrupted. Be aware that once a person's condition becomes known, they can be overwhelmed with well-wishes and they might find this uncomfortable - talk to your employee and make a plan you can both agree on to handle this.

Fit Note/Sick Note

The 'Fit Note' is usually a written note issued by GPs or consultants working in conjunction with OH, detailing how an employer can help the employee return to work after a period of absence. It can also be used a statement of not being fit for work. At the GPs discretion it may also contain other pertinent information on the condition of your employee which may affect their ability to work, with suggestions of ways to support them.

There can be confusion around fit notes where managers automatically believe it means an employee is well enough to come back to work - this is not always the case as the fit note can actually be used for one of two things: to state that an employee might be fit to return to work after a period of ill health (may be fit for work), or to sign the person off work sick completely for a defined period of time (not fit for work).

You should receive a copy of the fit note within 2 days of your employee has received it, so that you know what the reason for their absence is, if there is anything you can do to support them to return to work and set up a return to work plan. If your employee does not provide a copy that details they are unfit for work, then they would be classed as being on unauthorised absence and you would need to speak to your HR department for further support. It is in the employee's best interest to be open and honest about this, so you can provide or arrange for the support they need.

Where the fit note marks your employee as 'may be fit for work', it means the GP believes that returning to work will aid in their recovery and should also provide details on how to get the employee back into work. It's important that you work with our OH service to ensure everything is covered. Often the fit note may detail alternative duties for the employee until they feel fit to undertake all their usual duties and this should be agreed by all parties.

GP's are often not familiar with their patients work or work environment so it may be possible for OH to suggest alternatives to support staff to return to work. Where you feel this may be an option you should seek further advice through a referral to OH who would be responsible for contacting your employee to get the required consent and liaising with the GP if they deem it appropriate.

Permanent Ill-health retirement

Sometimes one of your employees may become very ill and permanently incapable of doing their current job. In these situations you should always look at options for redeployment or alternative duties in the first instance. However if these options are not possible, your employee may apply for ill health retirement.

To apply for ill health retirement, your employee:

  • must work for the Council,
  • have at least two years membership in the appropriate pension scheme, and
  • should be younger than normal state retirement age (65).

In order to be considered for ill-health a referral needs to be processed to OH asking for an independent medical assessor to review the case and advise if they meet the criteria for ill-health at either Tier 1 or Tier 2 level.  Following their decision OH will complete an OH report with the necessary certificates which require to be processed by HR to the appropriate services.