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What is long-term term sick leave – and how to deal with it

Long term sick leave is when an employee is absent from their place of work for an extended period of time due to ill health. This can obviously have a negative impact on both the employee and the business and in some cases the employee will not be able to return to work.

According to the UK government, long-term sickness refers to any period out of work longer than 4 weeks.

The most important step that any business owner can take around long-term sick leave is actually having a policy in place before the inevitable happens. It’s not a scenario that many small business leaders will necessarily be thinking about or have come across before, so if you want to save yourself a ton of stress later down the line, then it’s worth thinking about one now.

What does a long-term sick leave policy look like?

How long you look after someone sends a massive cultural message to the rest of your company. You can try to support the individual who cannot come back to work for as long as possible or you can cut cords as soon as you hear that they’ve hit a tough time. Each of those choices represents a very different sort of management practice.

Ideally, you want to be as supportive and generous as you can possibly afford. Think about setting up an initial period during which you can pay someone’s full salary, then another where you pay half, then a quarter. Have a staggered process of support before finally having the conversation where it is made clear that you cannot keep on funding them if they are not returning to work after long term sick leave.

With this in mind, don’t forget that you will also be paying someone else to do their job for them at the same time. Make sure that you factor that in and budget for it. You will probably find that in the first instance, your colleagues will start stretching to manage the left-over tasks on a day to day basis. This is the sign that you have a good and supportive team but sadly it’s not sustainable. You don’t want to risk burning out the generous, most supportive employees on staff. In the medium term, at the latest, you will need a replacement for the person who needs a lengthy health-related leave of absence. There is a cost to that.

Often the long-term sick leave policy will be applied in exactly the same way across the organisation, but at a small company that might not always be possible. If somebody is very ill and their parents live around the corner and they can move in with them, thereby not having to worry about rent, then they might not need the same level of financial support as someone who has multiple overheads to pay. This is a controversial approach, but it is worth being aware that making the policy flexible can be a cost-effective yet fair way of helping your employees. Think about how much they need the company’s support when they fall ill—don’t stick religiously by a policy if it doesn’t make that much sense when the real-life scenario arises.

The policy can also be flexible with regards to seniority. People have different salaries, so a one-size fits all approach might not alway be the most reasonable. Somebody relatively junior might not be able to cover rent on half their salary. On the flip side, a senior employee on a high salary will be much more likely to be able to look after themselves without the company’s help.

Emotional support: relieving long term sick leave stress

It’s worth remembering that providing cash is only one of the ways you can support an employee who is unwell for a long time. Work is the place they go most days of the week and will play a huge part in their life beyond the financial importance. Think about what they need and then see how you can act on that. This could be through actual care-giving or emotional support. Go in and see them. Make sure you include them in any fun discussions or ideas you have around the company, make sure they don’t feel forgotten.

When someone is ill for a long time, one of the big causes of anxiety will be their professional status. They will be worrying about letting people down. They will be worrying about losing their job. Simply letting them know that the team is there for them and that the management is willing to support them in whatever way makes most sense will make a big difference. Keep the lines of communication open and be there for them. Even if you cannot offer firm reassurances, you can make their illness and/or recovery that little bit less worrying by being supportive.

When coming up with your long-term sick leave policy, be sure to get real accredited HR advice. Doing the wrong thing can have really hazardous legal implications. It’s all too easy to end up in tenuous and legal grey areas. Make sure you communicate closely with an HR professional both while you devise your policy and when you are actually going through the process of supporting someone who is not able to come in and work.

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