Sarah Buxton, specialist HR and employment solicitor, examines the sensitive issue of how to manage stress-related absence in your practice.
Stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 11.7 million working days lost in 2015/16, according to the Health and Safety Executive. It is a big issue for anyone running a business, but many feel unsure about the best way to deal with the situation.
The most important thing to do in the case of an employee being absent from work due to stress, is to keep the lines of communication open. In my experience, persistent absence can often be due to something within the practice, rather than physical illness – particularly if there is a pattern of absence, i.e. a member of staff is always off on the same day of the week.
As a practice owner or manager, you should be having ‘return to work’ interviews when someone has been absent, and asking questions to facilitate them coming back into the practice. During that conversation, you may find out that the employee feels they are being bullied by the associate who works on Thursdays and that’s why they have stopped coming in on that day. Once you understand the problem you can take steps to address it, but without having the discussion you might never have that opportunity to get to the root cause.
“Once you understand the problem you can take steps to address it, but without having a discussion you might never have that opportunity to get to the root cause.”
You might know that the team member’s absence is due to stress as their doctor has written a work-related stress fit note. Again, the key here is communication and it’s important to note that you are allowed to call the employee at home and support their return to work, even if they have a doctor’s note. Of course, you don’t want to over-step the mark, but calling your team member and inviting them into practice to discuss and resolve the issue, is absolutely allowed.
If the person does not want to come into the practice, you could have the discussion at a neutral place, such as a café. You can also ask a third party to be involved, such as a business consultant or a friendly local practice manager. This can be a good step to take if the reason they are stressed is connected with the practice owner(s), and they may feel their complaint can only be dealt with adequately or independently by someone external to the practice.
“The key here is communication and it’s important to note that you are allowed to call the employee at home and support their return to work, even if they have a doctor’s note.”
It could be that the issue cannot be dealt with as informally as through a ‘return to work’ interview or conversation between the practice owner/manager and the absent member of staff. If there is a long list of issues, or it’s a more serious matter, or they are saying that it is the practice manager that is causing the stress, you will need to start looking at your grievance procedure.
In a situation like this I would advise that you ask the employee to put their complaint in writing. As the employer, you then have a duty to act on that by looking at what is set out in the grievance procedure, investigating what has happened, and finding out what outcome they would like. This could be changing their hours of work or not working with a particular staff member. You can then devise a way to act on this to resolve the issue that also suits the needs of the business.