A question that we’re often asked for advice on, is ‘How do I best manage my employee’s health issue?’ Some examples of how this can manifest are:  an employee taking regular or significant periods of leave (for known or unknown reasons); an employee injury that leads to a Workers’ Compensation claim; an employee’s management of mental health issues; or perhaps a medical diagnosis requiring prolonged treatment and road to recovery.

Note: here use of the term ‘injury’ refers to both physical and / or psychological injury.

It can often be a daunting issue for an employer as it can require a careful balancing act. We often speak to clients who:

  • want to support the employee as much as possible but also have a role that needs to be performed.
  • need to know what’s happening with the individual so they can plan ahead for the business.
  • want to respect the employee’s privacy.
  • aren’t sure how much they can communicate to the team/other colleagues.
  • aren’t sure what leave options the individual might have, particularly if the person has exhausted their personal leave accrual.
  • are simultaneously dealing with issues around the individual underperforming in their role.

Our best practice advice is to ensure you are covering these three bases:

  • Be supportive in terms of your approach. Recognise that the situation the individual may be facing may have placed increased stress on them personally, psychology and/or financially. It will always depend on the specific set of circumstances, but it’s often in everyone’s best interests if you can find ways to support the individual to be able to return to work some limited capacity initially, with a view to them returning.
  • Ensure you communicate regularly. Don’t adopt an ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach. Ensure you keep in regular contact and the lines of communication open. The last thing you want is for the employer/employee relationship to break down, for you to not know what’s ‘going on’ with the individual and for them to feel stressed, unsupported or even disgruntled.  As is well known, email communication often fails to convey the full or true meaning of what’s being said, so where possible or suitable, communication via phone, video conferences or face-to-face are best in these circumstances.
  • Process, Process, Process! Ensure you are following due process in terms of documenting the employee’s absence(s), the type of leave taken, leave balances and meetings held.

This is even more important if the injury is part of, or has potential to be the basis of a Workers’ Compensation Claim. Your insurance provider should be able to provide you with more information on the reporting and documentation requirements.

What this means in practical terms:

  • At the end of any meeting with the individual, agree on a suitable time frame for you to both have another catch-up and put it in the calendar.
  • It’s important to consider how and what you communicate with other team members who may be carrying the ‘burden’ of increased workload or feelings of uncertainty due to the individual’s absence. Manage the individual’s privacy and check with them what (if any) information they are comfortable for you to share with other team members.
  • Keep separate any issues around underperformance and the employee’s health issues. Obtain a ‘Fitness for Work Certificate’ signed off by the treating medical practitioner and/or work with the treating medical practitioner to develop a ‘Return to Work Plan’. These documents will provide you with clarity around the individual’s medical ‘fitness’ and ability to perform their role.
  • Ensure you are obtaining and keeping records of relevant documentation: obtaining current certificates from treating medical practitioners; current Return to Work Plans;  file notes of any pertinent discussions or meetings.
  • This should go without saying, but ensure proper documentation of the person’s leave accruals and details of leave and type of leave taken. Generally, the individual should firstly utilise their accrued personal leave.
  • Be sure to first check your organisation’s own policies around leave of absences to ensure you are also operating within any such policies. If you don’t have any policies it might be prudent to draft them.
  • If the individual has had an extended period of time away from work, termination of employment is something that you may need to consider, though bearing in mind the employee protections under the Fair Work Act. The General protections orders protect an employee against being dismissed because of discrimination.

The above provides a general overview of how to deal with an employee’s health issues.  As every scenario and particular set of circumstances is different, you should obtain advice or feel free tofr give us a call if you need further advice or to ‘sense-check’ your approach.

We wish you all good health during this continuing difficult period.

Disclaimer: The contents do not constitute legal advice, are not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.

Nick Hedges is the founder of Resolve HR, a Sydney-based HR consultancy specialising in providing workplace advice to managers and business owners. He recently published his first book, “Is Your Team Failing Or Kicking Goals – Take control of your people and their performance”. It is a practical response to the most pressing HR challenges, which can be found at https://resolvehr.com.au/.

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