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Managing employees on long-term sick leave

Solicitor Victoria Patterson advises GPs on how to deal with prolonged absences from staff members

 

Having an employee on long-term sick leaveis not in the interests of either party. It can be damaging to the employee's long-term health and future career prospects, but the practice can also suffer in terms of additional costs and administration, staff morale and possibly productivity levels, depending on what cover can be arranged. Even with the best policy in the world, instances of long-term sick leave are unavoidable – so how do you deal with it? The simple answer is to be proactive.

Have a sick leave policy

Impose and follow a sickness absence policy. Have clear rules about reporting, providing evidence and return-to-work meetings. It is important that everyone knows the policy and that the practice acts consistently when dealing with employees to avoid potential discrimination claims. Long-term sick leave may result in one of three outcomes: resignation, a phased return to work or – in more serious cases – a dismissal on the grounds of capability. While a lack of capability can be grounds for dismissal, you must follow a fair procedure and should seek advice before starting this process.

Seek specialist assessment

Before you consider changing an employee's duties or job role, or terminating their employment, you must have independent medical evidence on which to base your decision. The employee may have a disability, so it is important that this is assessed early to avoid any disability discrimination claim and to alert you to any additional steps you may need to take in terms of reasonable adjustments.

If you are considering changing duties or job roles, this could cause the employee to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal – so consult with them before making any changes.

To assess an employee's condition and plan a return to work, you will need medical evidence from an independent third party, such as an occupational health specialist. With the consent of the employee, a medical assessment should be arranged at an early stage. You should ask the specialist to focus their report on:

• the employee's health

• what medical treatment is needed

• how long symptoms are likely to last

• the likely date of return to work

• whether there are any reasonable adjustments which the practice should make to accommodate the employee's return to work.

It may help the specialist to see the employee's GP records in order to know more about their medical history, but if the employee is registered at your practice, you must obtain consent from the patient in order to share their records.

Communication is key

Once you have this report, you will be able to decide what to do. Are there any changes you could make to the employee's duties? Is there the potential to dismiss them on capability grounds? Often employers feel it would not be appropriate to contact an employee on
sick leave, but you still have responsibilities and duties towards your employee and you should communicate with them regularly. Once you have the occupational health specialist's report, hold a meeting to discuss its recommendations and seek a way forward.

Victoria Patterson is a solicitor at Veale Wasbrough Vizards

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