Keeping in contact with an employee who is off work because of ill health can be a sensitive issue. Alan Price of Peninsula gives his advice. 

Some employees may feel that they will be pressured into coming back to work too early. However, without any contact, those who are absent could feel out of touch and undervalued if they are away from work for a long time.

It is the responsibility of line managers to keep in regular contact with any of their staff who are absent. They are usually best placed to know the individual and to be able to handle any sensitive issues.

If it’s a minor illness that is likely to end within five days then contact is not usually necessary. However, a return to work interview should be carried out to help get people up to speed on their work and to discuss any underlying health issues.

“Give your employees the opportunity to discuss, in private, concerns about their health or other matters that are affecting their performance or attendance.”

sick leave

Sudden or traumatic illness

In the case of sudden or traumatic illness, it’s courtesy to extend your sympathies and use your discretion until a clearer assessment of the condition is known.

Any contact would usually be done by phone, but check with the employee that it’s convenient for them to talk. Ask them how they are getting on and explain it’s a routine call to see how they are and when they are likely to be well enough to return to work. If the employee makes it clear they don’t want to receive a call, then remain polite and end the call. Make sure you’re clearly focused on their health and to discuss their return to work. Consider what steps you might need to take when the employee returns to work, or what you might be able to do to encourage a speedier return.

It’s important not to make assumptions about the employee’s situation. Remember to listen and be flexible and consistent. Recovery times for the same condition can vary significantly from person to person. Don’t say that colleagues are under pressure or that the work is piling up!

Keep a note of your conversation. Remember to welcome the employee back to work and that medication can have side effects like physical stamina, mood, machinery operation and safety critical tasks.

Stress related illness

If the absence is stress related, find out if it’s connected in any way to the employee’s job or their workplace. Make sure that this is followed up when they return to work.

In the case of long-term or repeated short-term absence, a medical report may be necessary.

Consider training for your managers on how to deal with employees who are off sick. Explain that it is the policy and practice of the company to keep in touch with employees when they may be absent from work for any significant period.

Alan Price Peninsula

Alan Price (left) is a senior director of the employment law consultancy, Peninsula Business Services; managing director of Peninsula Ireland; and elected director and trustee of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – CIPD. Price also sat for four years as a board director at The Chambers of Commerce Ireland. 

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