Top tips for supporting line managers with long term sickness absence
Long term sickness absence can be a minefield for the best of line managers; do they call the employee? Will that be seen as pressure that person doesn’t need? What will they say if they do call? They’re not doctors or even confidants. But, at the same time, line managers face pressure and uncertainty when a team member is off for more than four weeks; What’s their duty of care? Should they be discussing ‘reasonable adjustments’ (whatever they are!)? And, when is it appropriate to think about a temporary or permanent replacement?
On top of all that, there’s the matter of an ongoing global pandemic of course. This brings extra day-to-day challenges for line managers. They were squeezed out last year when CEOs became the self-appointed chief communicators with the entire workforce. They’re now squeezed back in again as CEOs retreat to their engine rooms to get back to the job of steering the ship.
All the challenges that line managers faced pre pandemic haven’t gone away – in terms of lack of training and support to actually manage – they’ve just been exacerbated by a complex and, quite frankly, worrying and exhausting combination of: ongoing remote and/or hybrid working; Covid-19 related health and safety considerations in places of work; Long Covid; people getting diagnosed with – and treated for – cancer at a later and more invasive stage thanks to the NHS backlog; not to mention an ongoing rise in work-related stress and burnout.
And it’s highly likely that, in some cases, these issues are also being masked right now as a result of furlough, shielding and working from home; all of which are in state of flux, or even coming to an end within the coming months in the case of furlough.
There is some light!
When will there by good news? We hear line managers cry…Well, support from their employer to better manage long term sickness absence could represent a jolly good starting point; especially considering the impact on business.
It’s generally a given that the longer the absence, the bigger the risk that people simply won’t recover fully and return to work; 1 in 5 will not return to work after just 4 weeks of absence.1
So, getting on top of this makes people and business sense. But what does support for line managers look like in practice?
1. Help line managers put on their own oxygen masks first
It’s impossible to give others the support they need when your own health and wellbeing is suffering. In fact, one of the top answers from line managers on what would help them improve wellbeing support to the teams they manage, according to recent Legal & General research, was ‘Recognition from the top that managers are employees and have wellbeing needs too’ (35%).2
This isn’t just about mindfulness apps, bean bags and yoga. For line managers, the things that would improve their wellbeing centre more on the day-to-day experience, according to the same research: Recognition of work well done – informal and / or formal (38%); More flexible working options (37%); Being listened to better by their manager / employer (35%).2
2. Encourage collaboration across ‘people’ departments
This is a big hurdle for many organisations. And the bigger the company, the more specialist and siloed these departments become. Think Occupational Health (OH), Health & Safety, HR, Reward & Benefits, Learning & Development. Then take just one task that would benefit greatly from some collaboration: stress risk assessments.
Employers have statutory obligations under the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974)3 a duty of care for employee wellbeing, including mental health. This involves: minimising risk such as workload, role and expectations; identifying issues by monitoring absenteeism and presenteeism, also using the HSE stress risk assessment tool.
The trouble is OH or Health & Safety will do the risk assessing but rarely liaise with HR or line managers on the results. And probably vice versa where monitoring absence and presenteeism is concerned. If everyone collaborated, HR and line managers might be able to make better - more informed - use of preventative tools, services and early interventions via group income protection. Such information might also be used to help inform reasonable adjustments and return to work support. Your group income protection insurer’s rehabilitation team could and should be helping you join the dots on all of this.
3. Identify line manager training needs
These will vary massively according to individuals. So, implementing training for all on ‘How to have difficult conversations’ or ‘Checking-in on remote workers’ (both of which seem to be on trend right now) is great. But, while it will benefit some, others might get more value from training on subjects such as: understanding what reasonable adjustments are; how a phased return might work in practice; what insurer care pathways look like and what’s available when.
Also, consider laying out some pointers for all line managers to follow so that they know where they stand. For example, a crucial starting point in better managing long term sickness absence is arriving at the mindset that absence isn’t always the only solution when an employee is ill.
People should be given options for returning to work. Even if they’re just doing a couple of hours a week – literally dipping a toe in the workplace – it’s better than nothing; it’s giving them structure, social support and some semblance of normality.
It’s all about tailoring support to need. And, in order to do that, line managers need to feel equipped with everything from feeling their wellbeing is supported, to having the right tools, information and guidance to hand to best support their people.
1 Department of Work & Pensions, Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence, 2011 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/181060/health-at-work.pdf
2 Legal & General Wellbeing at Work Barometer. Opinium research commissioned by Legal & General: 1,055 employees (middle managers and below) in businesses with 10-249 employees and 1,011 senior managers in business with 10-249 employees, between 13-20 May 2021.
3 HSE, Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 [Accessed June 2021] https://www.hse.gov.uk/legislation/hswa.htm