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by Ruth Warden
3 September 2014

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Take the headache out of handling sick leave

NHS Employers’ assistant director of employment services, Ruth Warden, gives an overview of new information to help managers handle sick leave effectively
Managers at NHS trusts have started using a new free online resource by NHS Employers. They are now encouraging managers in GP practices and other parts of primary care to take advantage of it too.
Everything you need to know about sickness absence brings together the best expertise about how to handle staff sick leave, from the first moments when someone calls-in sick to long terms plans for recuperation and cover.
It has arrived at the same time as official annual figures showing that sick leave continues to fall in the NHS. This reduction is being hailed as a success and some credit is being given to the widespread growth of comprehensive wellbeing plans, which cover 300,000 more NHS staff now compared to three years ago.
Here are four key themes from the resource to whet your appetite. For more, visit the resource online.
 1) Get your immediate response right
Your response when someone calls in sick can make a big difference to how they feel and how they behave next. Put yourself in their shoes and think about how you might feel and what you would want your manager to say and do. Check important details and find out if any adjustments could be made that would enable them to come to work – after all, many kinds of sickness are best handled with activity rather than rest.
 2) Understand the causes of short-term absence
Frequent short-term sickness absence can be disruptive to teams and services. It can also indicate a bigger problem with an individual or the team. Spotting problems early will enable you to put the right support in place. Look for patterns and, if underlying causes are suspected, seek advice from an occupational health specialist and discuss health and wellbeing in supervision. You may need to communicate practical issues with the team, but be mindful of confidentiality when dealing with individual cases.
 3) Stay in touch during longer absences
Long-term sickness absence is usually defined as more than 28 days. It can be a difficult time for both the affected staff member and their manager. Your role is to support your staff to maintain their connection with the workplace. Make sure you have been given a fit note from their doctor to help you understand what absence to expect, and ensure your practice manager or other payroll manager is aware. Keep in touch and agree what kind of catch-ups are appropriate. Reassure the employee not to worry about their work being covered.
Work with available HR and occupational health staff to plan a return to work. And be aware of redeployment and ill-health retirement options if a return to their role is not possible.
 4) Know how to identify and respond to mental health problems and stress
Managers tend to feel less equipped to handle mental health problems and stress. This can be a concern because these account for about 30 per cent of all sick leave. You don’t need to be an expert in mental health but you do need to understand how to support staff and have open conversations with them. Like physical problems, mental health problems can fluctuate so what may be minor one day could be a major problem the next.
Your response should first be to listen and give your staff the information and support they need to plan and manage their work. You can support mental wellbeing in your workplace and reduce stress in many ways. These include encouraging open and honest communication, monitoring staff workloads, having policies that support work-life balance, giving staff control over their work, keeping staff informed of upcoming organisation or team changes and knowing reasonable adjustment and phased return options in your organisation.
Getting this part of your job right helps the health service to deliver its number one priority – high quality care. It helps staff to respond well to adversity, be motivated and engaged, feel confident to raise issues, continue careers despite ongoing health issues and be at work consistently.
It’s very important and it really does begin with creating the right culture at work, and of course with those crucial first seconds when someone phones in sick.