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Latest ONS figures suggest long term sickness is rising

14 May 2024 6 min read

conducting return to work interview following long term sickness absence

The Office for National Statistics recently published fresh figures that suggest that the number of people in the UK who are not working and/or not actively seeking work due to long term sickness is on the rise.

The statistics at a glance

More working-age people are self-reporting long term health conditions now compared with pre-pandemic levels. According to the figures, 36% of people say that they had at least one long term health condition in quarter one of 2023, up from 31% in the same period in 2019, and up from 29% in 2016.

The number of people are who economically inactive due to long-term sickness has risen to over 2.5million in 2023 – an increase of more than 400,000 since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Of those economically inactive people with long-term health conditions, 38% of them reported having five or more health conditions, which is an increase from 34% in 2019.

More than half (53%) of people who are inactive because of long term sickness conditions reported having depression, bad nerves or anxiety in the first quarter of 2023, with the majority of them saying that it is a secondary health condition rather than their primary one.

The figures suggest overall increases in the number of people who are not working and/or not seeking employment due to long term health reasons, with many dealing with more complex health conditions rather than just one ailment.

What is long term sickness absence?

In the workplace, there isn’t a defined length of time that is considered ‘long-term’. Individual organisations typically decide what they consider to be a long term absence and a short-term one in their absence management policies.

For some organisations, an absence could be considered long term if it exceeds one week. For others it might be a fortnight, or a month.

However, if an employee is absent from work for more than seven consecutive days (including weekends and bank holidays), then they are required to provide their employer with a doctor’s fit note. The fit note will include the nature of the health condition, date of assessment and expected recovery time so that the employer is informed about what’s going on and when the employee might be able to return to work.

If, once the fit note has expired, and the employee is still taking sick leave, they will need to provide another fit note ad continue to do so whilst they are off work.

What happens if an employee takes long term sick leave?

An employee may take long term sick leave to recover from a health condition or an injury in the same way they might take a few days off to recover from a cold or another minor illness.

When an employee takes long term sick leave, HR and the employee’s people manager will need to carefully manage the situation to ensure the employee’s welfare and an appropriate plan of action once the employee is ready and able to return to work.

Can an employer contact an employee who’s taking long term sickness absence?

There are set rules around contacting an employee who is taking sick leave. Communication between an employee taking sick leave and HR and/or their people manager is vital for several reasons. It is helpful to stay in touch to manage fit notes and absence reviews, but also to ensure an employer can offer reassurance and support to the employee as they recover.

It is a statutory duty for an employer to do what they can to support an employee’s health and wellbeing, and staying in regular contact to see how the employee is recovering is part of this. It also helps to ensure a positive working relationship for the future, when the employee returns to work.

However, there is a balance needed between staying in regular contact with an employee taking sick leave, and too much communication. If an employee feels their employer is contacting them too much, it may cause unnecessary stress or anxiety, and potentially hinder their recovery.

Supporting an employee’s return to work

To support an employee’s return to work, employers should use the employee’s fit notes as the main source of guidance. These will tell you the nature of the employee’s health condition and their expected recovery time, making it easier for you to plan when they will be able to start work again. An occupational health assessment can also be used, which can provide guidance on what, if any, reasonable adjustments are recommended in order for an employee to resume to their role.

In some cases following long term sickness absence, an employee may become classed as disabled, which might mean that they need to use adapted work equipment, have more flexibility in where they work, or work shorter hours in order to accommodate their needs. An employer is obligated to make reasonable adjustments such as these to support the employee to be able continue carrying out their role.

For some employees, a phased return to work might be the best approach, so that they can reintegrate into their role gradually on a part-time basis for the first few weeks.

Though not required, a return to work interview is one of the most effective ways of supporting an employee who’s been on long term sick leave. The interview is a chance to have a focused discussion about the nature of the employee’s sickness absence, and how they are feeling about returning to work. Any reasonable adjustments or phased return to their usual working hours can also be discussed, as well as any updates the employee may have missed while they were on leave – such as any new processes, changes or technology that are now in place.

Long term sickness absence policy considerations

Long term sickness should be included within your absence management policy, with details about how this will be handled.

A sickness policy should include the processes and requirements surrounding managing, recording and reporting sickness absence. This should also include long term sickness absence, as the framework for handling this type of absence should be different to that of short term sick leave.

A sickness absence policy should include:


  • The purpose and scope of the sickness policy
  • The reporting procedures – i.e. when and how an employee should inform HR personnel or their people manager that they are too ill to attend work
  • The need for an employee to provide a fit note following seven days of sick leave
  • The process of self-certifying if sick leave is less than seven days
  • Details about sick pay entitlement
  • How often and by what means an employer and employee will be in contact during a period of sick leave
  • Details about any support services that are available to employees, such as employee assistance programs or occupational health
  • The process for returning to work, including when and how a return to work interview will be conducted
  • Information about how the employer handles different types of sickness absence – including short term, long term and recurring absences, as well as permanent health issues.
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Georgina at edays
May 14, 2024

Georgina Mackintosh is an accomplished copywriter and marketing professional with a background that spans several industries. Her writing focuses on HR topics such as employee wellbeing, engagement and experience - as well as absence management best practice, how-to guides and news from the HR sector.