First published: January 28th 2016
Last updated: September 15th 2023
Keeping in contact with an employee who is off work due to illness can be a delicate balancing act.
On the one hand, you need to know when the employee will be fit to resume work but on the other, you don’t want the employee to feel pressure to come back to work before they’re better.
And if an employee is absent for an extended spell, they may feel out of touch and undervalued if you don’t reach out to see how they are recovering.
As this can be a sensitive issue for employees, here are some ground rules around contacting staff who are absent through illness….
Who should contact the employee?
It is normally the responsibility of line managers to keep in regular contact with any of their staff who are absent. They are usually best placed to know the individual and to be able to discuss any sensitive issues.
If it’s a minor illness that is likely to end within 5 days then contact is not usually necessary. No matter the duration of the absence, a return-to-work interview should be carried out to help get people up to speed with their work and to discuss any underlying health issues.
This meeting also gives your employees a private opportunity to discuss concerns about their health or other matters that are affecting their performance or attendance.
Unexpected absences due to illness
In the case of a sudden or traumatic illness suffered by an employee, communicate your sympathies and use your discretion until a firm diagnosis is made.
What’s the best mode of contact?
All contact in relation to an illness-related absence is typically by phone. Employees may prefer to text and line managers should check with these employees if there is a good time for them to talk before calling.
What to discuss on the call
Ask them how they are getting on and explain it’s a routine call to see how they are and when they are likely to be well enough to return to work. If the employee makes it clear they don’t want to receive a call, then remain polite and end the call.
Make sure you’re clearly focused on their health and to discuss their return to work. Consider what steps you might need to take when the employee returns to work, or what you might be able to do to encourage a speedier return.
Keep an open mind
It’s important not to make assumptions about the employee’s situation. Remember to listen and be flexible and consistent. Recovery times for the same condition can vary significantly from person to person. Don’t say that colleagues are under pressure or that the work is piling up!
Keep records of your conversations
Keep a note of your conversation. If there are any subsequent claims arising out the employee’s absence, it’s important that you have a paper trail supporting your management of the situation.
The return to work
Remember to welcome the employee back to work and that medication can have side effects on physical stamina or mood. If the employee is responsible for machinery operation or any safety critical tasks, make sure that their return to work is carefully managed.
Does the employee need ongoing assistance?
If the employee’s absence is stress-related, try to find out if it’s connected in any way with the employee’s job, conflict with a colleague or some other workplace concern. Make sure to address any such issues when the employee returns to work. Direct the employee to the Employee Assistance Programme if you think a confidential third party discussion with a counsellor will help.
Training for line managers
Consider training for your line managers on effective communication strategies for this type of scenario. Use your absence through illness policy and historic practice of the company to guide managers on how to keep in touch with employees when they may be absent from work for any significant period of time.
Expert HR Support on Sick Leave
For instant HR support with sickness absences, call a Peninsula HR expert on 1800 719 216