Mike Hibbs: Sick leave, keeping your processes healthy

Statutory sick pay (SSP) could become available for those earning under £118 a week, as well as more support for those returning from sick leave, is positive for low-paid workers and those with long-term health conditions. Whilst two million people could benefit from this proposed change, all employers must now assess how they can better help their employees who are coming back from an extended period of sick leave.

One of the main reasons why those who earn under £118 a week do not receive SSP is to avoid paying people more when they are on sick leave than when they are at work. If this occurs, it gives people a disincentive to return once they are recovered, with some people pushing the system in order to gain financially.

However, for those employees who do not receive SSP, there can be a temptation to shorten time off, even if they are still ill, in order to start earning again. Not only does this mean they will be less productive, it could also lead to their illness being passed on to colleagues, causing more people to take sick leave.

As a solution to both of these issues, the Government plans to give employees earning less than £118 a week 80 per cent of their earnings as sick pay. This would allow people to take the time they need to get better, without encouraging them to take longer or shorter periods off work than necessary.

The rise of “gig” and low-paid workers may be part of the reason behind the Government’s announcement of this possible change. However, there could be another impetus. A concerning statistic from the Department for Work and Pensions shows that every year, 100,000 people leave their job after a four-week absence, whether that be due to dismissal or simply not wanting to return. Worries surrounding the lack of support from employers may be part of this. In addition disabled people are 10 times more likely to leave work following long-term sickness absence than non-disabled people.

Improving support for all employees is vital to retaining talent. People are recruited because a company believes that they are skilled at what they do and employers must help their staff to return to work as smoothly as possible after a period of sick leave, so as not to lose the value an individual may bring. Every employee is an important member of the team and being ill does not change that.

Unhelpfully, there are myths surrounding liaising with an employee who is on sick leave. For example, some employers believe they are not allowed to contact those that are off work ill, but this is not true. Doctors have even said that offering support before a person returns to work can be beneficial, helping them to come back sooner and in a better mindset.

Many medical practitioners also suggest a phased return to work. This can help prevent people from feeling pressured or overwhelmed while they adjust to working life again. Advice from medical professionals can ensure each return is suited to the individual’s circumstances, such as allowing a person to commute later in the day, so they miss rush hour.

However, there is no financial support for employers when it comes to phased returns, and for some it is not feasible on a practical level. Small businesses or teams may not be able to offer part-time hours, even if it is a temporary measure. Financially, it means businesses paying the employee part of their wage with no Government support from SSP, which could place extra pressure on the wage bill. The Government proposal is to share this burden.

Nevertheless, the wellbeing of workers should be a business’ top priority, and attitudes towards employees must reflect this. If a person’s needs have altered due to their illness, employers will want to establish whether the employee is still able to do their job effectively. As long as adjustments are made that support the employee, welcoming them back could be almost as simple as if they were returning from annual leave.

To assist this process, employers could, as the Government is considering, look at introducing a right to request workplace modifications policy for those who are seeking to return after illness. This policy would function in a similar way to requesting flexible working and would allow employers to identify ways for staff to return more swiftly.

In order to adjust the workplace adequately, occupational health advice including diagnosis will be helpful. This may mean further administrative effort, but if it better informs the employer and enables an employee to return sooner than expected, it should be a considerable benefit.

It is worth bearing in mind that the deadline for responses to the Government’s consultation is on 7 October 2019. Once a response has been given, it could then be at least another six months before the legislation comes in, meaning there is plenty of time for changes to be made. However, whilst the current plans should bring about plenty of positives for low-paid workers and those on long-term sick leave, if employers are willing, and able, to support staff throughout the process there is nothing to stop them implementing some of the suggestions now.





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Mike is a partner in the employment team at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau.

Mike has a strong reputation for helping employers solve difficult employment problems and make choices based on appropriate risk assessment.

His clients include multinational manufacturing and insurance companies, along with local smaller businesses, construction professionals, colleges and universities, as well as care homes and third sector organisations.