Extended periods of sickness absence can be both challenging and unsettling for employees as they grapple with uncertainties regarding the duration of their recovery and when they’ll be able to resume their normal daily lives. Having to take a prolonged absence from work can add stress to their recovery period, causing them to feel isolated from their colleagues, anxious about catching up, worried about job security or missed career opportunities, and concerned about how they’ll readjust to work upon their return as well as how their workplace wellbeing may be affected.
In this latest instalment of our line management blog post series, we’ll explore how an empathetic line manager can be a great source of support by providing guidance and expressing concern for an unwell employee’s mental and physical well-being. Care and concern for employee health and wellbeing must extend beyond the workplace as line managers can often play a key part in supporting their team member’s recovery from illness.
When an employee is off work for a lengthy period due to poor health, communication is key. With this in mind, in the twelfth installment of our line management blog post series, we’re highlighting resources to help line managers maintain this type of effective communication with employees during sickness absence. From thoughtful check-ins to knowing when (and how) to signpost unwell employees to wellbeing-related resources, to understanding how best to respect their privacy and give them the time they need to recover, we’re helping line managers learn how best to support their team members. So – let’s get started!
Effective Absence Management: The Importance of Communication for Workplace Wellbeing
Regular, empathetic, and transparent communication is the foundation for effective absence management. It not only helps line managers support absent employees but contributes towards a culture of wellbeing and care that can diffuse across the workplace. Why exactly is it so important for line managers to keep in touch with employees during their sickness absence? There are 4 key benefits:
1. Builds Trust: By communicating with employees during their absence, line managers can develop a stronger bond with them, cementing a more trusting relationship. This can help boost employee confidence in their line manager, as they’ll know they’re someone they can turn to for support even after they’ve reintegrated into the workplace.
2. Maintains Engagement: Keeping unwell employees in the loop by sharing brief snippets of office news can prevent them from feeling isolated or disconnected, which can help ease their transition back into the workplace upon their return.
3. Provides Health Updates: Communication with absent employees can help line managers stay informed about their health. This can help them better support their team member, giving them the opportunity to offer them resources that could support their recovery. This might include reminding unwell employees of their ability to access to e-learning platforms like our Health and Wellbeing Discovery Hub, where they (and employees across the organisation) can consult a vast library of health and wellbeing-related content which could help support their recovery. ¹
4. Facilitates Future Accommodations for Workplace Wellbeing: By staying in touch during the affected employee’s sickness absence, line managers can gain a better understanding of their longer-term health struggles. This can help them adjust workloads in preparation for the employee’s return to work, organise accommodations such as remote working options (if possible) or a more accessible or ergonomic workspace set-up, and take active measures to support the employee’s recovery once back at work.
Not only this but in the case of work-related injuries or conditions (e.g., musculoskeletal disorders triggered by work-related activities or poor DSE set-up), communicating with the unwell/injured employee can help line managers and employers learn how to support their team better, putting in place measures to prevent other employees from suffering the same injury and triggering further productivity losses.
Effective communication can support and improve employee workplace wellbeing during and after sick leave.
But what exactly does it look like? This communication must be empathetic, compassionate, and demonstrate genuine concern for the affected staff member’s wellbeing. However, there’s a fine line – line managers must also be careful not to overstep boundaries or encroach on the affected employee’s privacy during their time off.
The Effective Communication Checklist: How to Communicate with Employees on Sick Leave
To ensure effective communication, line managers must be considerate of the team member’s health circumstances and recovery needs. To keep communications compassionate, supportive, and respectful, we suggest the following:
- Regularly checking in with the employee via telephone or email while being mindful not to pressure them to return to work before their sickness absence ends.
- Respecting boundaries and the need for privacy. Line managers should never push for details about the employee’s mental and/or physical health issues. They should also never provide unsolicited advice on the health problem the employee is suffering from and should only signpost medical resources when asked.
- Focusing conversations on the individual’s overall wellbeing. Open-ended questions such as “How are you holding up?” or “Is there anything I can do to support your wellbeing during this time?” can demonstrate concern for the employee’s physical and/or mental health without being intrusive about the details of their condition.
- Seeking the employee’s consent before encouraging other colleagues to keep in touch with them. They might not feel comfortable sharing details of their illness or recovery with their colleagues, so it’s essential to check first. By seeking the employee’s permission before encouraging other colleagues to contact them, the line manager can also show them respect for their privacy and personal boundaries, which can create a more trusting relationship.
- Clearly communicating the organisation’s sickness policies and making sure that the employee is aware of their rights. For example, line managers should ensure the employee is familiar with the company guidelines for sick pay. For further information, they should also direct employees to government guidelines ² about obtaining fit notes and proof of sickness from their GP.
- Reassuring the employee that their job will be there for them when they return. This can help alleviate stress and job-related anxiety, which will only hinder an employee’s recovery.
- Informing employees of any adjustments that can be provided to facilitate their return to work. This could include a phased return, reduced hours or workload, or scheduling a return-to-work call or meeting to help the line manager alleviate any specific concerns the employee may have before they return to work.
- Offering to visit the employee at home to check up on them, but only with their consent.
This conversation checklist can be a useful addition to any line manager’s absence management strategy. By following this checklist, line managers can maintain open lines of communication, demonstrate awareness of the employee’s need for privacy, and help them navigate the journey to improved health and wellbeing.
Conversations about employee health during periods of absence can also avoid presenteeism. This is when employees stay present at work despite illness or injury, resulting in a loss of productivity and lower-quality work due to poor health. ³ If employees return to work without fully recovering, they can risk such productivity losses for the organisation and even worsen their health. By communicating with employees during their sickness absence, line managers can stay aware of their health problems and encourage them to only return to work when they are completely ready to.
The Line Manager’s Toolkit: Thrive4Life’s Resources for Absence Management
At Thrive4Life, we offer a range of resources to help line managers with their absence management strategies. The following top 10 resources and services can help line managers and employers maintain effective communication with employees during sickness absences and also better support the overall health and wellbeing of their team:
- Wellbeing Consultancy: Thrive4Life’s wellbeing consultancy services allow line managers to consult health and wellbeing experts for bespoke guidance and management tips. The experts can help line managers identify any issues with existing absence management strategies, address these challenges, prevent work-related injuries (which might be causing employee absence), and also create the best communication strategy for sickness absence. To learn more, line managers can book a free strategy consultation with a Thrive4Life expert here: (link to this booking page). ⁴
- Mental Health First Aid Course and Skills Development Programme: Our Mental Health First Aid Course gives line managers the opportunity to gain an MHFA accreditation as a Mental Health First Aider. This training gives line managers the skills needed to become effective first-line mental health support for employees.⁵ Taking extended sick leave from work can be extremely difficult mentally and emotionally, and MHFA training can help line managers structure sensitive and supportive conversations with unwell employees during this time. Where employees have to take time off work due to mental ill-health, MHFA training can help line managers and employers recognise where they could improve mental health in the workplace, taking effective actions to reduce employees’ stress and anxiety levels. Once they become Mental Health First Aiders, line managers can then sign up for our Mental Health Skills Development Programme to refresh their knowledge, pick up new skills, and seek expert mental health advice and guidance for their employees.⁶
- Our Health and Wellbeing Discovery Hub: Our Hub is an all-in-one provision that contains an easily-accessible database of video and written content on all areas of health and wellbeing, from guidance on nutrition to information about common physical and/or mental health conditions. The Hub can help line managers improve their understanding of employee health issues and the factors that could exacerbate them. Line managers can also signpost the Hub as a wellbeing resource that can be consulted by employees during their time away from work or simply used by well employees to support their health and happiness.⁷
- Line Management Training: Thrive4Life’s 90-minute Line Management Training course gives line managers the skills and understanding to manage employee stress levels and boost their mental wellbeing. The course content not only equips line managers with the knowledge needed to identify common symptoms and warning signs of poor mental health but also to take active measures to support and improve their team’s emotional wellbeing.⁸ This training can help line managers support all their staff’s mental health, especially when an employee is returning to work after time off due to mental illness.
- Wellbeing Champion Training: Line managers can partake in Thrive4Life’s Wellbeing Champion training to develop a holistic understanding of the physical and mental wellbeing factors that could be affecting their team’s mental and physical health. This course teaches essential communication and leadership skills that can equip line managers and attendees with the know-how to promote an awareness of the importance of looking after physical and mental wellbeing across the workplace. ⁹
- Educational Wellbeing Talks and Webinars: Thrive4Life hosts educational wellbeing in-person talks and livestreamed webinars on a wide range of health and wellbeing topics, led by medical professionals and leading voices in the field of physical and mental wellbeing. These talks can be an invaluable opportunity for employees and line managers to gain more information about a specific area of physical or mental health, helping them support their wellbeing.¹⁰
- Health and Wellbeing Content – ePublications: Our monthly health and wellbeing newsletters can be an excellent resource for line managers. They contain fascinating educational content on a range of health and wellbeing-related topics – a brilliant way to help employees improve their physical and mental wellbeing, especially after a period of poor health.¹¹
- Mini Health Check – ‘Know Your Numbers”: This is a great preventative health provision that can detect developing health issues before they manifest in long-term sickness. With a simple 15 or 20-minute health check that takes place in the workplace, employees can gain a better understanding their overall health by getting a reading of the key measures which can indicate physical wellbeing. This includes blood sugar levels, BMI, and cholesterol.¹²
- Injury Prevention and Assessment¹³: At Thrive4Life, we offer injury prevention solutions and risk assessments conducted by qualified osteopaths and physiotherapists. For example, with an on-site DSE Injury Prevention Assessment or comprehensive Manual Handling Training, line managers and employers can help ensure that the equipment and physical set-up of their workplace doesn’t trigger or worsen an employee’s health. This is especially useful for employees recovering from an injury or musculoskeletal condition, but can also make sure that other employees don’t have to take time off work for the same reason/s.
When it comes to employee wellbeing, line managers are the ultimate resource both inside and outside the workplace. By prioritising open communication, providing their team members with unwavering support, and respecting their boundaries and privacy, line managers can transform an employee’s sickness absence into an opportunity for improved growth and stronger interpersonal connection. Our absence management checklist can also help line managers be as compassionate and respectful as possible during an employee’s time off from work.
The bottom line? By supporting unwell employees, line managers can cultivate the type of workplace culture and attitude that sees caring for others as one of its core responsibilities.
1. Employee Wellbeing Hub.
3. Presenteeism for Businesses. Investopedia.
4. Wellbeing Consultancy. Thrive4Life.
5. Mental Health First Aid Course. Thrive4Life.
6. Mental Health Skills Development. Thrive4Life.
7. Employee Wellbeing Hub. Thrive4Life.
8. Line Management Training. Thrive4Life.
9. Wellbeing Champion Training. Thrive4Life.
10. Educational Talks and Webinars Thrive4Life.
11. Health and Wellbeing ePublications. Thrive4Life.
12. Mini Health Check. Thrive4Life.
13. Injury Prevention Training Solutions. Thrive4Life.