A Spanish civil servant was fined last week after a court found that he had not attended work for at least 6 years, seemingly without his employer noticing his absence. In the meantime, he became an expert in the works of the 17th century philosopher Spinoza; no doubt a worthy enterprise, but rather removed from his job supervising a waste water treatment plant.
Although the circumstances of this case are unusual, what's not so unusual is for cases of long-term absence to be put in the "too difficult" pile rather than being dealt with promptly. While that approach can be tempting, particularly for employers which only pay statutory sick pay, in reality all it does is to store up problems.
The longer an employee is off work, the less likely it is that they will return, with consequent damage to the employee's career and wellbeing, as well as the costs of recruiting a replacement for the employer. If the employee is subsequently able to return to work, that can raise tricky issues if they have long since been replaced, and the employee may find it difficult to integrate back into a workplace which has moved on while they have been away. Employees on long-term sick leave can continue to accrue annual leave, meaning that the cost of terminating their employment can increase significantly if they are absent for several years.
It's far better to be proactive. Any employee who is absent for 7 days or more should be required to produce a "fit note" from their GP stating the reason for the absence and its likely duration, as well as any adjustments needed to get the employee back to work. Employers can now refer their employees to the government's Fit for Work service, which offers some occupational health services, although it is dependent on the employee cooperating. Alternatively, employers may wish to use their own occupational health advisers or obtain a medical report from a doctor they instruct, in order to assess whether the employee will be fit to return, and if so when and what (if any) adjustments should be made to the working environment. At all stages, the employer should move the process forward actively and communicate clearly with the employee about what is required of them, while taking into account the impact of any medical condition on the employee.
As an employee on long-term sick leave may well be disabled under the Equality Act 2010, the duty to make reasonable adjustments and the obligation not to discriminate against a disabled employee needs to be borne in mind throughout the process.
In our experience, long-term absence is one of the trickiest and most time-consuming employee issues which employers face. But leaving it to fester only makes it more problematic. You don't need to be a philosopher to decide which approach makes more sense in the long-run.