Weekly dilemma: Dealing with an employee’s ill-health

I’ve become aware that an employee has a serious medical condition, although he hasn’t told me about it. How should I handle the situation?

This can be a difficult situation. You need to treat it with sensitivity and care, taking account of potential health and safety issues, but also looking to act in the best interests of the employee.

The first thing to note is that, unless the illness is directly related to employee’s job role or there are serious health and safety issues, the employee is under no obligation to inform you about any medical conditions he might be suffering from, and he has every right to keep it secret. Even if they are suffering at work, some employees still choose to keep quiet about their conditions, for fear of being stigmatised or treated less favourably.

In addition, the employee may well be concerned, especially in this economic climate, about the need to take time off. Ideally, you would want to gain the employee’s trust so that he feels comfortable about sharing information about his condition; you and the employee can then find the best way forward both him and the business.

Initially, an informal one-to-one meeting with the employee, who could be accompanied by someone he has a good relationship with, may provide a suitable opportunity for him to discuss his problems. If the employee has a period of absence, then any back to work meeting might facilitate such a discussion.

Once the employee has shared details of his condition with you, you can then assess what is the best way forward, and understand what treatment the employee is going to receive, the time off he will require, and what adjustments might need to be made to his role to assist him. You should encourage the employee to be open and honest, and confirm to him that he will be supported as far as he can be.

The support might not be limited to the condition itself but also to helping the employee come to terms with the diagnosis. If there is an employee assistance programme in place, this may be the time to remind him of its existence. It is not unusual for an employee diagnosed with a serious medical condition to struggle to come to terms with how this will affect his or her future, both in and outside of work.

Depending upon the health problems, and likely impact, you may want to refer the employee to occupational health so that you can better appreciate the impact that any treatment might have, likely recovery times and seek assistance and guidance on adjustments to help accommodate the employee. Alternatively, or in addition, and with the employee’s consent, you could also seek a medical report from his specialist, particularly in the case of more unusual or serious conditions.

Going forward, it will be sensible to plan regular catch ups with the employee to check how he is, how he is coping, establish if there are any problems and address such matters promptly. You can then play a part in the employee successfully managing his health and continued employment.

Laura Kearsley, Associate, and Andrew Tomlinson, Solicitor, Weightmans LLP

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