A woman working on a laptop

Supporting an employee through long term sickness

From escalating sick pay and overtime costs, to the squeeze on resources as the team pulls together to complete an absent employee’s duties – long term sickness can put a strain on a business.

So of course it’s great to welcome a staff member back to work after a long time away.

What is long-term sickness absence?

Long-term sickness absence is typically defined as four weeks or more continuous absence. Currently, the most common conditions responsible for long-term absences are stress, anxiety and depression, back pain, coronary heart disease and cancer, with all of these predicted to increase in the years ahead.

Sickness absence strategy

A returning employee could be facing ongoing health concerns, could be feeling stressed about the work they have missed or anxious about returning to work. This is why a good sickness absence strategy should be in place to enable them to make an effective contribution to the business, while at the same time being sensitive to their current health needs.


Regular communication and support throughout the absence may help faster reintegration into the workplace – as you know better how to adjust their workload to suit their recovery upon return. Checking in regularly can also help reassure employees who are worried about finances or job safety during absence, and let them know that they continue to be a valued member of the company. Employees who have been absent often have lost confidence and acknowledging this can help alleviate their concerns.

Make adjustments

Doctors can suggest that employers implement things such as a phased return, flexible hours, altered duties and changes to the working environment to get returning employees back to work quicker. It’s been proven that a return to work can help recovery in some situations – so you may find such adjustments help a staff member get back to their usual role quicker if they’re unable to resume normal duties straight away

Plan and review

Every case of long-term absence is different, so while some employees might resume their normal activities sooner than expected, others may never be able to continue with their job as it was. Creating a tailored plan, which has clear goals, timeframes and review points can help you prepare for any effects the absence could have on the business and ensure the staff member is happy with the company’s efforts to get them back to work. Be proactive in arranging regular review meetings and always listen to the individual’s viewpoint and concerns.

Do's and don'ts for keeping in touch


Do: Don't:
  • Communicate work issues to keep them in the loop
  • Wait until someone is on long-term sick leave before taking action.
  • Focus the conversations on their wellbeing.
  • Delay making contact or pass responsibility to others unless there are valid reasons for doing so.
  • Encourage work colleagues to keep in touch with the individual where appropriate.
  • Make assumptions about your employee’s situation.
  • Make it clear that the organisation will support the individual during their absence.
  • Say that colleagues are under pressure or that work is piling up.
  • Reassure the employee that their job will be there for them when they return to work.
  • Forget that recovery times for the same condition can vary significantly from person to person.
  • Keep a note of contacts made.
  • Create a level of trust by agreeing before hand how you will keep in touch, how often and the reasons for keeping in contact with absent employees.