Employers and employees alike understand that the occasional absence from work due to sickness is unavoidable. Recovering from an operation or an unfortunate collision with the latest 'super-bug' causes absence to be a necessity.

But what about where the condition is not entirely debilitating and contagious, and may have almost resolved: does a return to work actually hinder an individual from making a full recovery? Professor Sir Mansel Aylward, director of Cardiff University's Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research School of Medicine, says categorically not.

In the UK it is estimated about 172 million working days are lost to sickness every year, which is estimated to cost the economy around £13 billion. Speaking at a conference of American health experts in Massachusetts, Sir Mansel said that "unfortunately many people think you must be off work to recover from illness – our challenge is therefore to uproot these misconceptions".

A survey carried out by Cardiff University found that negative influences such as fearing the worst, questioning one's ability to succeed and life factors which limited independence, were ranked highest by 38% of people asked about returning to work after sick leave. A further 32% of people cited problems in the workplace, and interestingly just 7% considered the pain or symptoms of pain as bearing a negative influence on their return to work.

However, despite Sir Mansel's conclusions that employees are staying away from the office for reasons other than the reason for which they were absent, and that contrary to popular belief, being at work is good for happiness and health, many employers do not have sickness absence policies for handling ill-health or to enable an early and sustained return to work.

Jersey employment law requires that a contract of employment contains any information concerning 'incapacity for work due to sickness or injury, including any provision for sick pay'. While specific legal advice should be sought to ensure this requirement is complied with fully and an appropriate and effective absence management policy is incorporated, the following suggestions are a good place to start:

  • Entitlement – ensure details of contractual sick pay terms and requirements (such as notification and the production of medical certificates) are clearly stated.
  • Record absence – a key element in managing absence effectively is accurate measurement and monitoring. The 'Bradford Factor' is a commonly used calculation in relation to monitoring absence, particularly those which are short term.
  • Contact – making contact with the employee will allow you to understand their predicament and also reassure them that they are of importance.
  • Be flexible – a simple change in the workplace may encourage an employee to return to work.
  • Utilise professional advice – if you have the benefit of an occupational health professional, make use of it.
  • Discuss a return to work – keep the idea of returning to work fresh in the employee's mind and organise an interview if necessary. If this discussion is had too late, the employee may lose confidence and encounter difficulty in returning to work.

Employers should be wary of the impact of the Data Protection (Jersey) Law 2005. If details about an employee's absence is recorded and stored, this is 'sensitive personal data' and the employee should know what information is being recorded and why. While the employer can put in place a comprehensive absence management policy, the employee is ultimately responsible for their own general health and for seeking to minimise unnecessary absence from work due to ill-health. Perhaps the well documented adverse financial impact of absent employees will motivate the former, and Sir Mansel's shocking suggestion that being unemployed for a period of six months poses the health risk equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes a day will resonate with the latter.

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