How to deal with sickness absence

A Social Work Union Guide

Question:
I am currently off work suffering from anxiety and depression. My manager rang me and requested that she and a person from human resources visit me at home. I am very worried about this visit as I felt that stress at work led to me being off work. Can I postpone this meeting and what are the issues I need to be aware of while on sick leave and when I eventually feel ready to start the process of returning to work?

Answer:
The first thing you should do is familiarise yourself with your employer’s sickness absence policy. This should tell you everything you need to know about what your employer can and cannot do. It is not unusual for employers to want to meet with you, a process typically undertaken with assistance from the human resources department. However, it does not usually have to be at your home; it can be at a venue both acceptable to you and suitable for the purpose.

Most policies will state that short-term sickness absence is anything up to six weeks; after that it will be regarded as long-term. This is an important distinction as you will be subject to different things – for example, you may have the right for representation at any meeting undertaken as a part of long-term sickness absence. In such a case, you should contact the Advice and Representation (A&R) Service, who will advise and support you, and attend any planned meeting with you.

Another important issue is work-related stress. It is very important that you have notified your line manager formally of this prior to going off sick. Your employers cannot be held accountable for something they were not aware of. On many occasions like these we are our own worst enemy by continuing to work under considerable stress and in poor conditions. We receive a high volume of calls from practitioners all over the UK who are suffering high levels of stress and are feeling demoralised. Many are forced to take time off work and seek help. In the main these social workers have good work records and are highly committed to the profession. They describe unmanageable workloads, competing demands and often feel they are drowning in paperwork.

For those people in direct employment, sickness absence pay is part of their contractual conditions of service. This should be outlined in the sickness absence policy. Your sick pay will be dependent on your length of service and previous sickness absence periods. If a period of sickness is prolonged, make sure you check out when your salary will be cut to half pay. Your employer has a duty of care to you. As such they can, and often will, be sensitive to an employee’s need in respect of recovering from a condition or illness.

Once someone who has been absent on sickness grounds begins to recover, a meeting with an employer’s human resources department and with a manager is both necessary and helpful. In such circumstances, the employer is likely to refer an employee’s case to occupational health. This is standard practice. The occupational health doctor will assess how long it may take you to recover and advise on what reasonable supports might be put in place to prevent a reoccurrence of a condition.

At a back to work meeting it is advisable for social work employees to draw up their own agenda, helping you to feel in control. This should include: a workload management plan; planned and supportive supervision times; a phased and gradual introduction of a caseload; a phased return should also be agreed in order to assist your re-introduction to the workplace.

As employers have a duty of care to their workforce, I have always found it helpful to ask for a review of progress in three months time as this gives everyone the opportunity to ensure that things are generally working to plan. An employer may not suggest this approach but it is good practice and allows the situation to be monitored. This can also help social workers to regain confidence in an employing organisation.

Most employers will do all they can to avoid taking people down the capability route but if a person’s sickness absence record is very high and recurring it will begin to impact on the service. Clearly, while proper safeguards are in place to protect employees, dismissal will be considered if a sickness absence level continues to be chronic for a prolonged period of time. If you find yourself in this position, it is vital that you understand that your employer must first inform you if they are considering taking you down the capability route. Your employer’s policies and procedures, and the details in your employment contract should give you clear guidance on these issues.

BASW’s A&R Service is always here to help, so please do not hesitate to ring our advice line –we are only too happy to offer support and guidance through periods of sickness absence.

Sickness in summary:

• Familiarise yourself with your sickness absence policy

• Short-term sick leave is usually anything up to six weeks

• If suffering from work-related stress, notify your employer before it gets too much

• Phased returns to work can help

Published : 2nd January 2012*

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* Although BASW has prepared the information contained within Social Work Knowledge with all due care and updates the information regularly, BASW does not warrant or represent that the information is free from errors or omission. Whilst the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of the information. The information may change without notice and BASW is not in any way liable for the accuracy of any information printed and stored or in any way interpreted and used by a user.