Career Clinic

Q: A member of my team has a very poor sickness record. I was just about to tackle him about it, but he has now gone off with “stress”. Is there anything I can do?

A: This is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of people management, and one which appears to be on the increase, particularly since more and more GPs seem willing to issue inappropriate sickness certificates. I say inappropriate because it is impossible for them to judge that any stress symptoms are caused by the workplace. There are, however, a number of things to keep an eye on.

You describe your colleague’s sickness record as poor. It is helpful to quantify that. If you haven’t done so already, ask your human resources department for the actual number of days over a given period, for example the last six months or year, as well as the reasons for absence.

While you should avoid putting value judgements on different illnesses, this exercise can be useful if it shows you that the absences are linked to a particular condition or if they are just logged as “sick”. It is not uncommon for staff to ring in sick when in fact they are absent because someone else is sick and they have caring responsibilities.

This doesn’t make the absences more acceptable but it can indicate that it should be logged under a different policy such as compassionate or parental leave, which may or may not be paid leave.

There is a popular misconception that if someone is “off with stress”, you shouldn’t contact them for fear of it being construed as harassment. This is not true. Contacting staff at home is a perfectly legitimate thing to do to offer support and to make that member of staff feel valued.

Of course, it is possible that this absence is directly related to a fear of what will happen when or if they return to work, and the more information you can give to allay any misconceptions, the better. Your organisation will probably have links with an occupational health facility which can advise on any help that may be needed, and organise a supportive return-to-work programme. Your staff member should be assured that this is about being able to come to work, not a way of being dismissed.

Last, but most importantly, even if you establish that this staff member has been abusing the sickness absence scheme in the past, do check whether there might now be a real work-related cause of the stress.

Alison Sanger is a social care HR consultant

A: It could be that this person is finding the number of hours difficult to cope with, may no longer have an interest in social work, or have difficulties at home that you are unaware of. There may be financial difficulties, or perhaps he genuinely feels stressed, in which case he may be off for some time. If it was one of my staff I would suggest a meeting to see if I was able to support him in any way. If the problem was something which could be resolved with support, you may find yourself with an invaluable member of staff. If, however, this is not the case then he would be given the opportunity to improve his work attendance record and, only after these measures had been exhausted, would disciplinary procedures be taken.

Name and address withheld

20 September question

Q: I am a qualified social worker with past experience as a manager in adults’ services, approved social work and residential management in England. I have been out of work for the last couple of years following a fall. Lately, I have had several interviews in Scotland but can’t evidence recent practice, and all my references are from five years ago in England. How can I get back to a position where I can use my skills and my 20 years’ social work experience again?

We will answer this question in the 20 September issue of Community Care.

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