NICE guidance urges better communication of sickness absence policies

Employers were advised to keep in touch with staff on sickness absence to discuss support.
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Organisations should implement and clearly communicate policies for reporting and managing sickness, according to new guidance from National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), to ensure that uncertainty around the process is minimised.

The updated Workplace health: long-term sickness absence and capability to work guidance, which is subject to consultation, includes advice around how employers can establish healthy workplace cultures and policies; assess and certify an employee’s fitness to work; manage workplace adjustments; keep in touch with people on sick leave; manage a sustainable return to work; and offer access to early interventions such as an employee assistance programme.

The consultation document says formal policies on sickness absence and returning to work might help reduce uncertainty around the return to work process for both employees and employers – but only if the policies are properly implemented.

“This means that employees, line managers and their employing organisations know what is expected of one another during an episode of sickness absence and during the process of a person returning to work. Regularly reviewing these policies and procedures would be good practice to ensure that they are appropriately applied and fit for purpose,” the document states.

It notes that there is a “small amount of low quality evidence” that access to early interventions has benefits for both employers and employees and can help reduce sickness absence and promote a more sustainable return to work. But, it says, smaller organisations might not have access to these interventions.

“The committee noted from their experience that it would be good practice for smaller organisations, which do not currently have access to such services, to explore where additional services (such as occupational health) may be available to provide support, as part of a proactive approach to promoting employee health and wellbeing,” the guidance document says.

Employers are also advised to make contact with staff as soon as possible, or at least within the first four weeks of sickness absence, being sensitive to their individual needs and considering whether early referral to support services – physiotherapy, for example – could assist with their return to work.

A consultation seeking views on the changes closes on 5 July, with the finalised guidance expected to be published by NICE on 20 November 2019.

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