Over 100,000 people leave work each year following a period of long-term sickness absence and the longer an employee is absent, the more likely it is that they won’t return at all.

Employees who are absent for just four weeks are 94% likely to return to work, but this decreases to just 80% when absent for 6-9 months, and down to 56% when absent for a year or more. However, those with mental health problems were less likely to return overall.

When an employee is off work for a period of time, employers often feel unsure of how to deal with it – they want to be sensitive to the employee’s needs, but it can place a real burden on a smaller business and leave you wondering how to cover the workload.

Too many times we’ve heard of employees being left to fester without any contact for months or years and when that happens, nobody wins – the employee gets fed up, feels unloved and unsupported and decides to stubbornly sit there waiting for you to make contact, or worse starts bad mouthing your company to anyone who will listen and you face the risk of a tribunal claim for discrimination or for unfair dismissal when you eventually do decide to take action.

So, what should you do?

Firstly, remember that the employee may be going through a really tough time – they may have had an accident that has been traumatic or may be adjusting to a life-limiting illness. Be sensitive to their situation.

When you know an employee is signed off work, agree a timeframe for keeping in contact. This may be a few days before the first GP’s note expires and then fortnightly thereafter (you can increase this to longer periods further down the line if it looks like they will be absent for some length of time).

Once an employee has been absent for 4-6 weeks with no sign of imminent return, invite them to a formal welfare meeting. You can do this at your office, their home or at a neutral location and allow them to have a friend or family member, or a colleague, with them if they wish (but do given them a written invitation so you can keep track). Discuss their condition, how it impacts on their ability to work and if there is anything you can do to help remove those barriers. Take notes on the meeting and send a copy to the employee.

Create a written record of the impact the absence is having on your business – how much has it cost you to replace them, what impact has it had on other staff, have you had to pay for additional resources?

The next step is to obtain consent from the employee to go to their GP or carry out an Occupational Health assessment to find out how long the absence might last and if there are any adjustments you can make to facilitate a return.

You should then hold a second meeting with the employee to discuss the results of the report. Ideally you will be able to agree on suitable adjustments or a timeframe for reviewing the employee’s return. If the GPs/OH report demonstrates there is no possibility of the employee returning in the foreseeable future you may want to consider terminating their employment on the grounds of ill health – this should always be a last resort and do make sure you seek advice as it is possible the employee may be protected under the Equality Act 2010.