Phased return-to-work is most effective way to manage long-term sickness absence

Implementing a phased return to work is the most effective way to manage long-term sickness absence, according to a survey by Personnel Today‘s sister publication IRS Employment Review.

The survey of 173 employers – covering a combined workforce of just over 811,000 people – showed that this was cited as the top method by 40.6% of respondents. The second most-effective method was the preparation of a return-to-work plan with the involvement of the individual, cited by 34.5% of respondents.

At least 70% of respondents used elements from the following eight categories to manage long-term absence:

  • Asking for medical reports (97.6%)
  • Keeping in touch with the absent employee (97%)
  • Making temporary changes to the employee’s work to help them return (95.8%)
  • Preparing a return-to-work plan (92.8%)
  • Using the disciplinary or capability procedure (80.1%)
  • Offering early retirement or access to an insured scheme (72.3%)
  • Making permanent changes to their work to help them stay once they return (70.1%)
  • Commissioning health treatments (32.3%).

Responsibility for managing cases of long-term illness is usually shared between HR and line managers. Managers were supported in this role at 99.3% of the organisations surveyed. Most commonly, they receive advice and support from HR, occupational health (OH) or other sources, such as an employee assistance programme. Just over half of employers (56.4%) also provided line managers with training.

Case management – where a group of stakeholders, typically including the absentee, their line manager, an HR representative and an OH adviser, jointly resolve to get the employee back to work – is widely used by line managers, albeit on a selective basis.

Typically, employers manage to help 90% of staff on long-term sick leave return to work. Respondents stressed the importance of keeping in touch with absent employees, as well as the need for early intervention, and the value of support from an OH adviser.

Long-term absence is usually defined as an absence of four weeks or more. Such absences accounted for 39% of all time lost to absence in 2008.

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