Work and Wellbeing · 11 September 2017

Managing long-term absence – running a business when you’re a man down

Managing long-term absence can mean added stress for remaining staff
Managing long-term absence can mean added stress for remaining staff

Nobody wants to see their employees signed off work indefinitely but, while it can be upsetting and potentially awkward to discuss, managing long-term absence strategically is key.

In many small businesses, managing while an employee is away on holiday for a week is bad enough – so what happens when that employee takes maternity/paternity leave, or even long-term sickness absence?

During this time the work still needs to be done. The burden of this may fall to your remaining staff, who may not take kindly to being over-worked.

Managing duty of care while keeping morale up can mean walking a fine line, which is why your first port of call should generally be doing whatever you can to help an employee return to work.

Preventing absence

Naturally, there are times when sickness in not preventable – an employee might have an accident, or be taken seriously ill. However, often there are ways of managing health that can prevent employees from taking long absences.

According to Fit for Work, stress and mental health are two of the most-cited reasons for taking long term absence from work. As an employer, there are things you can do to help mitigate this risk.

For example, look out for signs of stress in your employees. This can be difficult, as employees may try to mask this from employers, but things such as frequent colds or infections, seeming tired and lethargic or frequent complaints of tense muscles and pains can be red flags. If you spot these signs, take an employee aside and check in on their workload – perhaps you can help spread the load a little more.

Employers should be approachable, and employees should feel comfortable that their mental health will be taken as seriously as a physical condition. In addition, where possible, they should encourage a healthy lifestyle – simple things such as sports days and free gym memberships, or providing fruit in the office can help.

Long-term illness

If a business is unfortunate enough to have an employee suffering from long-term sickness , employeers should do what you can to help an employee return to work. This can mean making changes at your premises to make it easier or more comfortable for them, or by enabling them to work more flexibly or remotely, if possible.

If they are unable to complete their own work but are expectant that they will be able to return to work eventually, you either have to ensure their work is covered by colleagues or take on a temporary employee to handle it.

A temporary role may be costly – you will have the recruitment costs and extra wages to consider. Depending on the size and culture of the business, it may be worth speaking openly to employees about whether they have the capacity to take on extra work. If employees are able and willing to take on extra workloads, make sure you are appreciative to avoid bad feeling.

If you do decide to spread the extra work around existing staff, keep in mind that this could increase stress for them, too. It will take some careful juggling, and you will need to keep a close eye out for anyone else showing signs of being over-worked or stressed – otherwise it will be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire.

You could also look into protecting your most important asset, your employees, with business healthcare cover. This would ensure if sickness should occur they can get the treatment they need and be back to health and work quickly.

Getting employees back to work

The best way to cope with repeated or long-term absence is to ensure an open dialogue with poorly employees – make sure they feel they can approach you about any issues that are likely to cause bouts of sickness or work absences. This way you can plan for it as best you can.

For example, you could try to ensure this employee works on individual projects, rather than as part of team projects – this means they can manage their own time rather than disrupting a team that requires collaboration on a day to day basis.

Alternatively, you could increase collaborative working practices in the office and ensure that all of their work is available on the cloud so that another employee can easily pick up where they have left off if they can’t make it to work. This approach also means the employee would be able to work from home if they are well enough, but too ill to travel to work.

For more information to help support the health and wellbeing of your employees please visit:

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Letitia Booty is a special projects journalist for Business Advice. She has a BA in English Literature from the University of East Anglia, and since graduating she has written for a variety of trade titles. Most recently, she was a reporter at SME magazine.

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