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Long term absences

Long term sickness absences are normally defined by the University as continuous absences for a period of four weeks or more.

Process for long term absence

Following a period of continued absence of 4 weeks or more, the manager should contact their HR Business Partner / HR Advisor to discuss and, following that, make a management referral to Occupational Health (OH) is appropriate.  OH will then conduct a review and supply a report which will be considered by the manager and their HR contact.  Potential outcomes of this process are that:

  • the employee continues to be absent and they will be reviewed by OH at an agreed point in the future;
  • the employee returns to normal duties;
  • the employee returns to normal duties on a phased basis;
  • the employee returns to work on altered duties or is redeployed to another role;
  • the employment is terminated under the Ill Health/Incapacity Procedure or
  • the employee retires on the grounds of ill health.

Guidelines for long term absences

During long term absence it is important that the manager stays in regular contact with the employee to monitor progress and provide support, and that the employee keeps their manager informed of their progress. If the employee has been referred to Occupational Health, the employee may also receive regular contact from them.

Employees who are absent long term can reasonably expect their manager to get in touch with them to enquire about their wellbeing and enquire whether the University can do anything to support them in their recovery and return to work.

Managers in the College/Service should regularly review sickness absence to identify cases of long term absence with support from HR if required. In particular, where absence exceeds one month (or earlier if the first medical certificate indicates the absence could be prolonged, examples of this may include depression/stress, back problems, cancer or work related reasons for sickness) consideration should be given to whether intervention is appropriate.

An employee can choose to take their statutory paid annual leave (under the Working Time regulations this is 28 days (pro rata for part time staff)) at the same time as sick leave, or they can choose to take the missed annual leave at a later date. A worker who has missed out on statutory paid annual leave due to sickness can carry over the untaken statutory paid annual leave to the next leave year (runs January - December). Any requests to take paid annual leave during a period of extended sickness absence have to be made in writing to the employee's manager and be received prior to the commencement of the requested period of leave. Please see Untaken Annual Leave section for more information and example.

In liaison with the employee’s manager, HR will be responsible (where appropriate) for referring the case to the Occupational Health Service.  The manager will have completed the referral form in liaison with the individual and will have ensured that they are aware of the referral and the reasons for it.

Normally the employee will be expected to attend the appointment at the University but in exceptional cases this may be conducted remotely via an online meeting or phone call, or through a visit to the employee either at their home or outside the place of work.

In cases of long-term sickness absence, a medical report by Occupational Health will normally be expected to provide information on:

  • whether there is an underlying serious medical condition, and, if there is, the impact on the employee’s duties and whether these are temporary or long term;
  • whether a return to work is likely and the estimated timescale;
  • whether a return to the full range of duties is likely;
  • what duties if any the employee might be able to undertake;
  • if, in the judgement of the Occupational Health Service, the disability discrimination provisions of the Equality Act may apply, in which case they will advise what reasonable adjustments should be considered.

The report may also make recommendations concerning the way in which the employee returns to work, e.g. in relation to any support or assistance that may be expected from the College/Professional Service, or whether redeployment may need to be considered (see Redeployment Procedure).

In some cases, recommendations cannot be made because it is too premature to consider other options or because ill health retirement cannot be considered at that stage.   It is recommended that a review at 3 months and 6 months be carried out with Occupational Health in order to assess the health or the employee and make recommendations of possible options.

Where, in the opinion of Occupational Health, an employee is likely to be fit to return to their normal duties within a reasonable time scale, no further action may be required other than to notify the employee of the outcome of the review and to keep their absence under continuous monitoring and review.

What constitutes a reasonable time scale will depend on:

  • the nature of the illness;
  • the effect of the absence on the organisation/service, including the ease with which adequate cover can be maintained;
  • the employee’s personal circumstances, including their employment record and sick pay status;
  • the likelihood of future recurrent sickness absence.

Employees are expected to notify the University of their return to work as early as possible. When an employee returns to work after an extended period of absence, if a manager is concerned about the absence or health then they can request that the employee is confirmed as fit for work by the University's Occupational Health Service.

If an employee returns to work following an extended period of sickness absence with a Fit Note from their GP recommending adjustments to their working arrangements, the employee should be referred to the Occupational Health Service immediately.

On the return to work of an employee who has been on extended sickness absence, as part of the return to work discussion, the manager should assess whether the employee has any untaken annual leave which should be carried forward from the previous calendar year (i.e. the University leave year). The manager should agree with the employee when they will take any carried-forward leave entitlement.  The employee's preferences should be considered alongside the operational activities of the department as well as when they can take the leave entitlement for the current calendar year (see examples in Untaken Annual Leave section).

If Occupational Health’s report indicates that a return to the full duties of the post is not suitable, but the employee may be capable of undertaking a restricted range of duties, or alternative employment, HR in liaison with the manager will investigate:

  • whether reorganisation of the job is reasonably practicable or
  • whether redeployment (including retraining) to another job is appropriate.

The University will make every reasonable effort to maintain suitable employment (please see Redeployment Procedure). If an alternative position can be identified the employee may be offered the position on a trial basis for up to three months. If the trial is mutually successful the appointment will be confirmed at an appropriate grade and salary in relation to the post. If the trial is unsuccessful or where redeployment/reorganisation is not possible, there may be no alternative but to recommend termination of employment.

Redeployment may also be an option where an employee is suffering from ill health which is affecting their capability or suitability for the job but who is otherwise managing to attend for work regularly (see Redeployment Procedure).

After a long term absence Occupational Health may recommend that an employee’s return to work be phased in order to help restore confidence and help them readjust gradually to work. A phased return is where less than the contractual hours are to be worked for an initial, defined period (not normally exceeding three months). A phased return must be properly structured and the OHA/HR Business Partner/Manager/Advisor will offer advice and guidance to managers to assist in drawing up a return to work programme for the employee.  The form PD75G should be used to outline and confirm the arrangment between parties and these arrangements should be periodically reviewed. 

A phased return may also be recommended by the employee’s GP on their fit note.

Where a phased return is recommended, issues to be considered by the manager, with the advice of their HR Business Partner/Manager/Advisor, include the nature of the work, the hours to be worked, remuneration and the duration of the arrangement.

Where the Occupational Health Service have recommended a phased return to work, the employee may use any untaken annual leave entitlement or carried forward untaken statutory leave on the days when they will not be attending work. Alternatively this may be counted as sick leave or unpaid leave or as part-time work, according to the circumstances and the employee’s entitlements. (Unpaid leave and part-time work may affect pension contributions). These arrangements should be confirmed in writing.

If the College/Service does not deem a phased return to be reasonable then a discussion needs to take place with the line manager and HR Business Partner/Manager/Advisor to consider business as well as employee needs. There is no right for an employee to have a phased return to work and this option should only be used in exceptional cases.

If an employee has been absent for an extended period, is considered to be permanently unfit to carry out their duties and is a member of the Universities’ Superannuation Scheme (USS) or University of Exeter Retirement Benefits Scheme (ERBS), ill health retirement may be considered.

The HR Business Partner/Manager/Advisor should, after consultation with the Manager, discuss the case with the Pensions Manager to ensure that the employee meets the eligibility criteria. The process for ill health retirement is complex and requires approval of both the University's occupational health physician and the pension scheme's physician and may therefore take several months.

Where ill health retirement is approved, the University will treat such retirements as mutually agreed terminations of employment, not dismissals, and therefore do not carry a right of appeal or right to paid notice.

An employee who is not a member of one of the pension schemes, or who does not meet the eligibility criteria for ill health retirement can still leave their employment with the University by mutual agreement, where both parties agree that the employment cannot be continued.

However, ill health retirement is not always available and as a last resort termination of employment may be necessary where the medical review indicates that the employee is unlikely to be fit to return to work or within a reasonable timescale. The Manager must consult with the HR Business Partner/Manager/Advisor before application of the Ill Health/Incapacity Procedure.

Where ill health retirement is not an option, or is not agreed to by the employee, termination of employment with contractual notice will be considered on the grounds of the employee’s lack of capability to carry out the duties of the post. It is important to recognise that the employee is not being accused of any form of misconduct.

Where an employee does not return to work following an extended period of absence and their employment is terminated, whether by resignation, dismissal or mutual consent, any untaken statutory entitlement from previous leave years should be calculated and paid in lieu, along with pro-rata contractual entitlement from the current leave year. (Please note that prior to Easter 2011, staff on half pay and nil pay were not paid for any bank holidays and closure days which fell during a period of sickness absence).

Example: A full time employee on Grade D leaves the employment of the university at the end of April 2012, having been off work since February 2011.  They took no leave (other than Bank Holidays and Closure Days) in 2011 and 2012. They should be paid in lieu of untaken statutory leave in 2011 (28 days - 11 Bank Holiday/Closure Days) + untaken statuary leave in 2012 (28 days - 11 Bank Holidays/Closure days) + pro-rata contractual leave to end of April 2012 (4/12*28 days) = 17 + 17 + 9 = 43 days.

Please note that termination of employment will only be considered after a thorough investigation and consultation with the individual at all stages of the Ill Health/Incapacity Procedure. In these circumstances, the procedure to be followed will be as specified in the University’s Statutes and Ordinances.