According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there are now over 2.5 million citizens on long-term sick leave, bringing the UK to record levels in 2023.

From a spike in stress and mental health struggles to a rise in long-term Covid, employers are thus under increasing pressure to put appropriate management policies in place.

Why engagement during time off matters

Typically defined as an absence of four weeks or longer, companies are under no legal obligation to offer anything beyond statutory sick pay - currently set at £109.40 per week - for the first 28 weeks. Nevertheless, it's important to recognise not only the impact that an employee's sickness can have on business productivity, but also the impact that it can have on the employee themselves.

Taking considerable time off work is naturally a worrying process. Wages are reduced, alternative ways of coping need to be found and there's an underlying concern that - unlawful as it may be - disciplinary action or potential job loss might be waiting on the other side. And even when people feel secure in their roles despite ongoing ill health, simply thinking about coming back to overworked colleagues and a mountainous workload can often feel too much.

It's imperative that employers tackle these woes as best they can throughout the period of leave in question, in order to restore balance to the rest of the team as quickly as possible. Indeed, the long-term absence of a colleague can put undue stress on other company members - but by supporting the person who is sick and keeping them engaged, this burden might be relieved within a shorter window. More importantly still, the right support can help to secure better chances of an eventual reincorporation, which, in a skill-short market characterised by a 40% desire for career change according to KPMG - is no small feat. In fact, ONS data indicates that the proportion of people who become permanently inactive as a result of long-term sickness within the UK is on the rise, highlighting the urgency for better engagement as soon as people take time off work.

Supporting employees who are sick

Whilst there is no doubt that employee engagement is essential during long-term sick leave, navigating the complexities of such a delicate situation can prove more elusive. For instance, how do you determine the extent to which a person wants to be contacted during their time off? You still want them to feel like a valued member of the team and must do your best to counter potential feelings of isolation. However, it must be clear that all contact is on their terms and that a response is by no means obligatory or time sensitive.

It's often a good idea to proffer a conversation about this as soon as it becomes clear that the absence will be long term. Things should be very much centred around the employee's wellbeing, making it clear that their job will still be there when they come back and ensuring they know who they can contact for queries and support - be it emotional or financial - in the meantime. Finding out how often they would like you to check up on them and establishing their preferred methods of communication can also be useful, as can checking whether they want regular updates on their usual projects to ease concerns about their return to the office - or if, conversely, they would prefer not to think about work during their absence at all.

Throughout this process, smaller instances of communication, such as social media interactions, can often be overlooked. Nevertheless, tagging your team - absentees and all - in group posts and encouraging other team members to get in touch can make all the difference when it comes to ensuring those who are ill still feel included. You might even consider inviting them to low-energy events, recognising that just because they are too ill to work right now, it doesn't mean they're too ill to live altogether.

Of course, when the time comes, you'll need to conduct return-to-work interviews, also making sure you have a plan to accommodate any ongoing wellbeing needs. Phased returns and more flexible schedules can often help, as can regular review meetings to ensure you are tailoring the tasks and responsibilities given to the employee's current abilities.

For those with a disability, the 2010 Equality Act also calls for the complete assessment of the workplace itself whenever someone returns from long-term sick leave. This is essentially an opportunity for you to make any adjustments needed for them to be able to do their job, be it better chairs, specialised supports or installing adequate wheelchair access, for example. It's generally a good idea to seek further advice from occupational health on such matters.

Because stress and poor mental health are the primary reasons behind long-term sick leave - accounting for 63% of all long-term absences according to Simply health - improving the wellbeing support provided internally can help to prevent future problems, alongside any necessary occupational therapy. Overall, the more sensitive you can be to your team's needs while working, the less likely you are to see a risk in long-term sickness overall - a crucial consideration at a time when at least 50% of all organisations have dealt with cases of long Covid over the past twelve months.

Of course, policies for minimising overtime for others covering for any long-term absences also require careful navigation, with support being implemented for all members of your team to ensure they don't feel overworked or overwhelmed. Ultimately, stronger policies surrounding illness - backed by HR expertise - are required across the board, making sure that organisations are prepared to protect both themselves and their people when someone falls ill.

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