Long-term illness in the workplace and how to manage it

At some point, at least one of your colleagues will suffer from a long-term or serious illness. This situation can be tricky to handle – but there is a way to do it right.

No matter how concerned you are for your team member, as a manager you need to make sure your team’s work is done efficiently – that can be harder to achieve if one person is unwell.

“It may be the employee is off sick more than other employees, or it may be they can’t carry out some of their duties or can’t carry them out as quickly as others in the team,” says Tom Neil, guidance writer for ACAS.

Overcoming departmental challenges

Team members may become resentful about picking up the slack. Another challenge, often unrecognised, is the emotional impact on your staff. “The rest of the team may be upset to see a colleague experiencing a health issue and may need extra support themselves to cope with it,” says Neil.

There may be occasions where a team member hides an illness; their work might suffer, and you don’t understand why. This can be a particular problem with mental health issues, as there’s more of a stigma around these.

“Employees experiencing mental health problems can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind. “They may just need additional support. But, too often, staff worry about coming forward, so colleagues aren’t aware that they’re struggling or might benefit from some support.”

Supporting the individual

“This will usually involve sensitively talking to the employee, but it may also require further discussions with HR, senior managers and the rest of the team, bearing confidentiality in mind,” says Neil.

“A manager should also consider asking the employee for permission to contact their GP or referring them to occupational health (where this is an option), who could provide further guidance on the effects of the health issue and the type of support and adjustments that would help the employee in the workplace.”

Know your policies

“There should be effective policies in place for managing people issues, including absence, health and wellbeing,” says Neil.

These issues are exactly what HR departments specialise in, as Jessica Barlow, a finance manager in a publishing company, discovered when she faced a difficult situation.

“Tim was excellent at his job most of the time, with a really innovative way of approaching problems. But he was always late for work and seemed constantly on edge.” Barlow became increasingly worried about her team member’s erratic behaviour.

“Once I’d approached HR and they stepped in, the situation improved. Tim was honest and said that he had bipolar disorder. It had been well managed but he had moved to a new area and had stopped taking his medication. With the help of HR, we were able to support him in taking some time off to register with a new GP and get back on track”.

Get clarity and communicate

When dealing with sickness, communication is key, says Neil. He points out that a manager dealing with an affected team member will need to understand:

1. Exactly what the health issue is.

2. The support or adjustments that could be made to help the employee, both practical (such as adapting a workstation) and emotional.

3. What steps need to be put in place to mitigate the impact on the team and organisational performance.

4. What the employee wants the rest of the team to know and not know.

5. How other team members are finding the situation. While you may be focused on the person with a health issue, listen to others’ concerns too.

6. What the impact on the individual might be, and how this may affect their work.

Don’t assume the worst

Managers and staff alike may worry that a team member will lose their job once HR gets involved in a health issue. This is a worst-case scenario and is an unusual occurrence. “When concerns around an employee’s health do arise, resources and processes should be focused on supporting them and identifying ways to help them back to better health,” says Neil.

“Dismissal should only ever be considered as a last resort.” On rare occasions, it may be in everyone’s best interests for the affected team member to leave their position.

Create a healthy culture

If the culture in your team is generally open, it will be easier to deal with any problems that do crop up. Team members will find it easier to approach you. You will be more familiar with their backgrounds, which could help you identify issues more quickly. “We work with organisations to help them create mentally healthy workplaces by promoting wellbeing for all staff, tackling the work-related causes of stress and poor mental health, and supporting staff experiencing mental health problems,” says Mamo.

Regular team get-togethers and informal chats about stress and wellbeing, among other things, could make a real difference over time. “When concerns around an employee’s health do arise, resources and processes should be focused on supporting them”

Neil’s top tips

1. Have regular conversations with the affected team member and their colleagues. Keep this up even when the situation seems to have settled.

2. Reassure everyone that you want to help.

3. Check-in with the team member regularly to find out how they are getting on.

4. Listen carefully to all your staff – don’t make assumptions.

5. Be patient: don’t force anyone into having conversations if they seem reluctant. 6. Be clear you’re always available to talk.

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The content team are the owners of AAT Comment.

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