By Mike Blake, Director, PMI Health Group

The government’s roll out of its Fit for Work scheme has put the need for effective sickness absence management back in the spotlight. Not that is was ever too far from the corporate agenda.

The business cost is clear – an average of £609 per employee per year according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) – and the case for tackling the problem is widely acknowledged.

Prevention will always be better than cure but where incidents of long-term absence do occur, carefully planned return-to-work programmes are called for to ensure relapses are avoided.

Advice should be sought, as required, from GPs and Occupational Health (OH) physicians to help make informed decisions on an employee’s return to work. If the services of an external OH consultant are used, a case manager might be employed to ensure the return to work plan runs smoothly and, if necessary, to help mediation between the employer and employee.

Sensitive communication and consultation

The prospect of returning to work following a period of long-term sickness absence can be a difficult and daunting experience for employees. A range of negative emotions can be experienced, such as feelings of isolation or apprehension.

These feelings can be mitigated if regular contact is maintained between the employer and employee. This should be conducted in a sensitive manner to ensure staff don’t feel that they’re being pressured to return to work too early. Conversations should therefore focus on the employee's wellbeing, capabilities and what support can be offered to them.

A return to work interview will give employers an opportunity to discuss how the employee can be best integrated back into the workplace, while giving the employee the chance to discuss issues that may call for ongoing support.

A phased return to work, gradually building back up to normal working hours, can also help to prevent members of staff from feeling excessive pressure, fatigue and help them to cope better with their job demands.

Alternatively, a framework of flexible working could be agreed. This might allow employees to work from in a safe and comfortable environment or to fulfil their obligations while undergoing treatment.

Job and workplace adjustments

In some cases, illness or injury may prevent staff from conducting their job in the way they’d previously been able to. If an employee has been rendered disabled, the employer is legally obliged under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to enable them to continue working.

Short-term or permanent job redeployment may be necessary, for example, in which case training or support should be made available where required.

Where there’s been a significant change to an employee's ability to conduct their role due to illness, injury or disability, there is also a legal requirement to review workplace risk assessments and, if necessary, amend them to identify any new hazards. Ramps may need to be installed, for example, or shelves lowered to accommodate disabled staff. Improved lighting may be necessary for employees suffering from visual impairment.

Establishing an appropriate return-to-work policy may not a legal obligation but it can help set expectations, roles and responsibilities – helping organisations to cut costs and fulfil their duty of care while boosting their reputation and business performance.