Dismissing an employee on long term sick leave

Dismissing an employee on long term sick leave
Dismissing an employee on long term sick leave

This article is about dismissing an employee on long term sick leave and has been written by Russell Bowyer. It includes the latest statistics from Office for National Statistics (ONS), reporting on the impact of sickness on the UK workforce.

Can an employer dismiss an employee due to long-term sickness?

This article has been in the back of my mind, ever since I went through a bout of cancer. Owning my own business meant that I couldn’t be sacked myself. But, it did bring about other problems…but that’s for another article.

I know what it’s like to have long-term sickness. As a result I am more understanding of employees who are faced with this predicament themselves.

So the question I then ask is ‘How reasonable is it to keep a job open indefinitely?’ Despite going through this scenario myself, I have to agree that it isn’t always reasonable for every employer. If you are running a small business, the costs can become significant. However, the costs associated with keeping an employee on whilst they are absent can vary.

Every situation is different, and it can also depend on the employee concerned.

Many companies don’t pay sick leave to their employees. Whether to pay sick leave or not is not an easy question to answer. It’s  made more difficult as a result of the few that take advantage of sick pay.

How long is it reasonable to keep a job open before dismissing an employee on long term sick leave?

Some see it as additional holiday entitlement. I had a company where employees got paid two weeks sick leave at full pay. Certain staff members took advantage of this ‘benefit’. It turned out that every year they’d have exactly two weeks off sick.

Paying employees sick leave is only a part of the problem

The cost of paying sick leave is not the only consideration. Having a key employee absent will cause other challenges for your business. This is especially so for smaller businesses with fewer employees. If your business has less than ten members of staff, and one is off sick, this represents 10% of your total employees.

For businesses with less employees than this, the percentage is even higher.

You do have the option of employing temporary staff. However, this has two challenges, with the first being the costs and time associated with training the temporary staff member. Also, temporary staff usually cost more than permanent staff.

Considerations over dismissing an employee on long term sick leave include the cost to the business. This will depend on whether the employee is paid for sick-leave

However, on a positive note, should you need to dismiss the staff member on long-term sick leave, you have a potential replacement already trained up.

Bear in mind though, you cannot replace someone who is off on long-term sick, with a permanent member of staff. If you did, this could lead to constructive dismissal.

What are the procedures to follow when dismissing an employee on long term sick leave

With any HR situation, I always recommend firstly to seek professional help from an HR adviser. Secondly, I strongly advise that you follow procedure to the letter, which means dotting ‘i’s’ and crossing ‘t’s’. What you don’t want is the costs of an expensive tribunal and worst still to lose a claim brought about by a disgruntled employee.

Please note, that just because you as an employer follow the correct employee dismissal procedure, it does not mean the employee will not make a claim. However, by correctly following your procedures, you stand a much better chance of defending your case in court.

When dismissing an employee on long term sick leave always follow the correct procedure. Obtain professional HR advice.

Only use this article as guidance and make sure you seek the appropriate HR advice, however, here are a few tips to follow:

i. Keep in contact with the employee in ill-health

Always keep in contact with the member of staff with long-term sickness. Keep in touch with them about their condition and ask them about the prospects of them returning to work.

Every good employer should have a vested interest in their employees and look out for them. So checking whether they are okay is not only good practice to follow from an HR view-point, but also it shows you care too.

Review the employee's role within the business. Before dismissing an employee on long term sick leave
Review the employee’s role within the business. Before dismissing an employee on long term sick leave

ii. Review the employee’s role within the business

Before you begin the process, and with the permission from the member of staff concerned, obtain a report from a medical practitioner. This report may come at a cost, but the cost of this will be worth it.

Once you have the medical report, and depending upon the type of long-term sickness, you can review the role. Also review the individual’s capability of doing the role. It may be possible to change the role slightly, or even to move them to another position within the company.

Changing roles within the company will depend on the availability of a vacant role. It will also rely on the ability of the person to do this other role, either with or without the condition.

The other consideration is to look at the option of them going part-time. It maybe that the illness warrants a reduction in hours, or days worked. This maybe all that is needed. Everyone’s a winner when it works for the employee and the employer.

You may need to carry out a risk assessment of the new role, depending on the role. This will also depend on the reason why the employee is on long term sick leave too.

Update their employment contract if you agree to change their role.

iii. What if you’ve decided to look at terminating their employment contract?

In the event that a return to work is not possible, you may need to consider dismissal. This will be a dismissal on the grounds of ill health.

The first step is to consult with an HR expert, if you haven’t already done so. The HR’s first port of call will be to review your employment contract documents. I am hoping that you already have these in place.

Start by a review of whether the absence has been dealt with by the employee in accordance with your contact terms. Where the staff member has not followed the correct sickness policy, this would go against them in a tribunal situation. This is especially true where you’ve followed the correct procedure.

Where you are considering dismissal, make sure you consult with the employee throughout the process. Also put everything down in writing and, where you hold meetings, always keep minutes of the meetings.

How can an employee protect themselves against long term sick leave?

Employees should always consider protecting themselves against the possibility of a long-term illness. I would certainly recommend some form of critical illness insurance. Depending on the type of insurance cover you take and on the type of long-term sickness, will depend on whether you will receive a payout.

I recommend seeking professional insurance advice on this too.

Latest statistics from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reporting on the impact of sickness on the UK workforce

Neil Pickering, Marketing and Industry Insights Manager at Kronos, warns that despite the encouraging news, unauthorised absenteeism is still having “a significant impact on UK business productivity“. Mr Pickering goes on to say:

“The latest statistics from ONS, reporting “the lowest level of sickness absence since records began” is great news. But our experience suggests the wider story is very complicated.

Unauthorised absenteeism has a significant impact on UK business productivity and this is felt more at specific times of the year. Understanding where the pressure points are is critical in developing strategies to address it.

“Our research shows that 24% of British workers have 5-6 of their working days disrupted by unauthorised absence between January and March, the most disrupted time of the year.”

Many also feel these absences are not for legitimate reasons, with nearly three quarters (73%) accusing their colleagues of taking sick leave when they were not ill, and a third admitting taking sick leave when they shouldn’t have. While the ONS suggests that men are less likely to miss work through illness, our research suggests that they are the most likely to fake illness (40% compared to 32% of women).

“This disruption can be significant for both employers and employees. Absenteeism not only means that work is not delivered as efficiently, with colleagues covering roles they are not familiar with, but the stress levels of those employees in work also increase, risking fatigue and burnout.

“Implementing effective employee engagement tactics at the right times in the year is critical. More than a quarter (27%) of workers feel that having an employer that cares about them makes a significant difference to their attitude to work, with better work/life balance topping the list of benefits most desired.

Techniques such as offering more flexibility, self service HR processes and giving more responsibility for employees to manage shifts are just some of the techniques that lead to more engaged employees and fewer unauthorised absences.”

More useful stats on employee absences:

Dismissing an Employee on Long Term Sick Leave - More useful stats on employee absences
Dismissing an Employee on Long Term Sick Leave – More useful stats on employee absences
  • 37% predicting that they or a co-worker will take unplanned absences or fake a sick day in the first quarter of 2017 to have more time off.
  • 40% of Brits predict that on average at least 3-4 days are disrupted by unauthorised absences between January and March.
  • 24% say it can affect as much as 5-6 working days.
  • Men are the more likely of culprits to fake a sickie in the first few months of the year (40%).
  • Women are not far behind (32%) and it affects all sectors of the workforce.
  • Stress ranked highly as a cause for unplanned absences in the first quarter (32%), with many employees feeling the pressure and resorting to unplanned time off when it becomes too much.
  • 31% of Brits identify “post-Christmas blues” this as the main reason for their unplanned absences during the start of the year.
  • One of the biggest challenges for employees in the first quarter of the year is that the summer holidays still feel a long way off – the next UK bank holiday isn’t for another 4 months.
  • One third of survey respondents admitted to taking a sick day when they weren’t actually sick in the last 12 months, leaving businesses short-staffed and putting undue pressure on other employees.
  • Nearly three quarters of respondents (73 percent) believe their colleagues have “thrown a sickie” this year when they have not been ill.
  • Flexibility was rated as one of the top workforce perks by 41 percent of respondents.

Please note once again, the above article is for general guidance only on dismissing an employee on long term sick leave. If you do find yourself in this situation, make sure you seek professional HR advice beforehand.

You may want to consult ACAS as well – here is an article on this subject on the ACAS Website. ACAS Support.

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Dismissing an Employee on Long Term Sick Leave

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