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Long-term sickness absence can have a number of consequences for workers, so it’s important that employees return to work as soon as possible after illness.

The effects of long-term sickness absence

Being off work for long periods can cause negative health effects because of:

  1. being less physically and mentally active;
  2. a lack of structure to days/weeks;
  3. increased financial pressures;
  4. isolation caused by not participating in ‘normal’ activities due to health/financial constraints.

If employees are off sick and/or recovering from an illness or injury, it is important that regular contact is maintained with the workplace throughout their absence (not just when the return to work is imminent) so that they are kept up-to-date with developments in the workplace.

When employees finally return to work after long periods of sickness absence they may struggle with:

  • a loss of confidence in their ability to do their job;
  • permanent health changes, which may make it impossible for them to perform certain elements of their job;
  • feelings of guilt, and isolation from other team members;
  • lack of knowledge about changes in the workplace (e.g. new processes, staff changes, etc.).

GPs are now able to provide advice through the fit note on how employers might manage the return to work. The fit note offers four options for those who may be fit to work. GPs can choose any of the following options (or a combination of options):

  1. Needs altered hours.
  2. Needs amended duties.
  3. Needs workplace adaptations.
  4. Phased returns (usually recommended after long-term absence of over three months).

Altering the hours of work or a phased return to work may mean a reduction in an employee’s income so it is important that employees are aware how their wages will be affected. This usually depends on the contract of employment and whether sick pay has expired. Some individuals will be keen to return to work as normal as soon as possible, with no special considerations, and this should be supported, if practicable and safe (e.g. people wanting to get back to ‘normal’ after chemotherapy).

Occupational health services

Occupational health services aim to protect the health, safety and welfare of people engaged in work by fostering a safe working environment. The type of occupational health support offered will vary depending on the organisation and could include the following:

  • Health surveillance (e.g. hearing and breathing tests).
  • Statutory medicals (e.g. working with asbestos, ionising radiation).
  • Approved medicals (e.g. for divers).
  • Fitness for tasks (e.g. drivers, safety critical workers).
  • Health screening (e.g. for those with back pain).
  • Treatment services (e.g. first aid centres and emergency response).
  • Health promotion (e.g. cholesterol testing, blood pressure monitoring).
  • Absence management services and assessments.
  • Travel clinics for those who need vaccinations to travel abroad.
  • General health assessments for those with health issues affecting work.
  • Training programmes.
  • Disability assessments and advice on reasonable adjustments.
  • Fitness for work assessments.
  • Ergonomic assessments in the workplace.
  • Stress management services.

Employers can access the free Health for Work Advice helpline and knowledge base developed to assist employers  in just a few clicks.  Unlike the NHS Occupational Support Service for employers, this service is (currently) free.

Other sources of online assistance:

  • NHS Health at Work Network:

    A gateway for businesses in the broader community who are seeking occupational health advice and supporthttp://www.nhshealthatwork.co.uk

  • Access to Work:

    Practical advice and support for people whose disabilities are making it difficult for them to workhttps://www.gov.uk/access-to-work

  • Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics (ACPOHE):

    Association representing physiotherapists who have demonstrated specialist competency in the fields of occupational health or ergonomicshttp://www.acpohe.org.uk/

  • Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IoSH):

    The biggest health and safety membership organisation in the world and the only Chartered body for health and safety professionalshttp://www.iosh.co.uk/