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Kate Nowicki: Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Monday 01 August 2016

Kate Nowicki, Acas East Midlands Area Director, discusses absence and how it can impact health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Kate Nowicki Kate Nowicki

Kate Nowicki is an Acas Area Director based in Nottingham.



Isn't that right? After the best of holidays it can still be a relief to get back to the familiarity of your own home, and re-establish the routine of daily life. But going back to work after an absence... now that can be a different matter.

Of course there's the straightforward Back from the Balearics scenario. You know, the one where you saunter back in looking relaxed, bearing bags of cheap airport sweets, and sharing anecdotes about paella and flight delays. By 10:30am the sweets have gone, the relaxation is fading, and it's already your turn to make the tea.  Holiday what holiday?

But what about going back to work after prolonged sickness? Who brings in sweets then? Or wants to hear an anecdote about delays in the doctor's surgery? one. So how can employers make sure that employees are supported when sick and able to make a good transition back to work at the earliest possible opportunity after a long-term absence?

In the best workplaces there will be policies and procedures in place, brought to life by a supportive manager, to ensure a good return. Add in up-to-date medical evidence, consideration of adjustments such as a phased return and time-off for ongoing medical appointments and you should be getting things about right.

Survey data from the EEF (Engineering Employers Federation) indicates that long term absence, that is sickness of more than four weeks, is a growing share of the overall sickness absence in the UK. Absence levels are going down, but long-term sickness is relatively higher. This may well reflect improvements by managers in managing short-term absence. But there are strategies for managing longer term absence that can be very effective. When the EEF's own Occupational Health guru, Professor Dr Sayeed Khan, spoke at a recent Acas conference, he made a big impact with his common sense approach. He is a powerful advocate of the benefits of taking a positive approach to getting people back to work, including the value of keeping in touch, and most of all, 'talking to people' as he radically puts it.

So why does that contact during a period of sickness cause so much anxiety for managers? I know some employers are exceptionally cautious about the risk of being accused of harassing their employee. I was reminded of this recently by a friend who's a teacher. A colleague she line manages has been sick for a number of weeks with all doctor notes 'going to the school office'. My suggestion that she take a look at the fit notes and contact the absent colleague came as a surprise to her. Her view was: 'But she's got sick notes, and she can't work. We must not disturb her.'

It's an understandable but probably misplaced concern. Of course you have to get it right and use sound judgement. But with ongoing conversations the individual is more likely to get the comfort and support to help them consider returning to work.

So don't be afraid to contact your absent team member. Better that they let you know if you're being intrusive and you can adjust your approach than to have them wondering whether anyone really cares. With the right approach they may even look forward to coming back to work and bring a bag of cheap sweets with them.

1 Comment

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  • Posted by Parveen Mughal  |  11 August 2016, 5:24PM

    I had a member of staff on long term sick. My call to her to ask how she was and how I could support her helped us come to an agreement of phased return.

    It definitely helps to stay in touch although one ex staff member with a history of sickies used that as harrassment in a later court case when she finally left.