What is long-term term sick leave – and how to deal with it
If you’re here, you’re probably finding yourself in the difficult situation of supporting a team member who has been off work for an extended period of time.
It’s one of those delicate moments where you have to balance the interests of your company with your responsibility to look after your employees.
As an HR Advisor, I help small businesses and startups navigate these issues on a daily basis. This guide sums up everything you need to know about long-term sick leave and long-term sick pay, so you can be safe in the knowledge you’re compliant at all times.
What is long-term sick leave?
Long-term sick leave is when an employee is absent from work for an extended period of time due to ill health. This can have a negative impact on both the employee and the business, and in some cases, the employee might not be able to return to work.
You can also check out our guide on average sick days per year in the UK for more information.
What is the legal definition of long-term sick leave?
According to UK employment law, long-term sickness refers to any period out of work longer than 4 weeks. There is no legal maximum period for long-term sick leave, but each company should define a ‘reasonable’ period for their employees to recover — this should be outlined in your long-term sick leave policy.
What does a long-term sick leave policy look like?
The most important step that any business owner can take around long-term sick leave is 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.
How long you look after someone sends a meaningful 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 rough patch. Each of those choices represents a very different sort of management practice.
Ideally, I’d advise you 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
Instead, 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 leftover tasks on a day-to-day basis. This is a 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.
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 to a policy if it doesn’t make that much sense when the real-life scenario arises. It will also allow you to avoid a lot of unauthorised absences down the line.
The policy can also be flexible with regards to seniority. People have different salaries, so a one-size fits all approach might not always 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: how to go above and beyond to support your team members on long-term sick leave
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 to 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.
When someone is ill for a long time, one of the big causes of anxiety will be their professional status. Sick employees will be worrying about letting people down and losing their job. Simply letting them know that the team is there for them and that the management is willing to support them 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. It's also a better way of managing employee absence in general.
When coming up with your long-term sick leave policy and contract of employment, be sure to get real, accredited HR Advice. Doing the wrong thing can have really hazardous legal implications with an employment tribunal. It’s all too easy to end up in tenuous and legal grey areas.
That's where our HR advisors can come in to help you figure these things out, so perhaps you should book a call today to get the right policy for your business
What is long-term sick pay?
Long-term sick pay is the amount of money a company pays an employee who is on long-term sick leave because of a health condition. This pay must be at least equal to the UK Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), but it can be more than that, and paid for longer than the statutory 28 weeks — this is the company’s choice, and should be clarified in your long-term sick leave policy.
Do employees still accrue holiday when on long-term sick leave?
Yes, if you have any team members on long-term sick leave, they still build up annual leave allowance as usual.
Also, if someone in your team has not been able to use their holiday because they’ve been on long-term sick leave, they can carry it over to the next holiday year.
Employees on long-term sick leave can roll over 4 weeks’ unused holiday, but you can allow for more to be carried over in your policy. Find out more about holiday rollover and understand what is annual leave here.
How does long-term sick holiday pay entitlement work?
If you terminate the employment of a team member on long-term sick leave, you’ll owe them holiday pay, as with any other employee. And it works the same way with long-term sick pay for part-time workers (you just need to pro-rate their holiday entitlement).
You can use HR software like CharlieHR to automatically calculate holiday allowance for each of your team members.
However, before making the difficult decision to dismiss an employee, I’d recommend you get professional advice from an employment lawyer or an HR advisor. If you fire a team member on long-term sickness absence without offering them reasonable adjustments to meet their needs (such as a phased return), you risk serious legal action for unfair dismissal.
And if you want to find out more, perhaps have a look at our guide on unpaid leave.