For the small-business owner, catering effectively to the needs of his or her employees is one of the biggest challenges they face. Needless to say, the situation can be made more treacherous if a member of staff is suddenly struck down with a serious injury, or diagnosed with an illness, that will ultimately affect their ability to work at the level they had previously. Firstly, it throws up issues about the workload for the rest of the team, and the possibility of having to take on part-time workers to cover for any periods of absence. More pertinently though, it means the employer must be prepared to sit back and put everything in perspective, before concluding what the best way forward is for both the affected employee, and the company as a whole.
However, an employer need not feel helpless in such circumstances, which tend to come loaded with medical complexities and, in a number of instances, emotional baggage to boot. Furthermore, even if the diagnosis appears obvious on the surface, it could be that the employer doesn’t need to take as drastic a course of action as first thought.
“From my point of view, I believe the most important thing here is communication because you are not going to know anything until you actually speak with the member of staff,” says Sarah Morris, managing director of HR consultancy HR2You. “It is also important that you have a true understanding of what the background is for their absence and how best you can accommodate them. You have a duty of care as an employer to identify what those areas are.”
Indeed, approaching your employee’s personal physician can go some way to helping untangle any past medical history, in case it has contributed to the most recent illness or injury. More than this however, it could help provide a clearer picture of how the employee feels about the situation and, ultimately, what course of action they would prefer to see pursued.
“There aren’t many GPs who will write a report that contradicts what the patient wants,” explains Dr Charlie Vivian, medical director at occupational health provider Corporate Health. “I think we often talk about the GP becoming the patient’s advocate because of that. And interestingly, I think that is one of the reasons why GP reports can be incredibly helpful – because what they almost always will do is give you a very clear view of what the patient wants.”
Essentially, though, an employer wants to know how an employee’s predicament affects their capacity to do the job they are paid to do. For this perspective, a discussion with occupational health can also prove fruitful. “You want to know what the impact of that condition is on their ability to work,” explains Vivian. “For example, two people can have multiple sclerosis – one can be working almost normally and one can be completely bed-bound, so the diagnosis alone is not necessarily helpful.”
All things considered, taking on as much advice as possible will prove valuable in the long run. However, it is imperative that the final decision on the appropriate adjustment is made by the employer – and agreed by the employee. “Case law is absolutely clear about that,” says Vivian. “We advise what adjustments they need to think about, they decide if those adjustments are reasonable. Lots of managers don’t understand that. They assume that we are the ones who tell the manager what this person can or can’t do. The implication is that the manager has to implement our advice, regardless of whether it’s realistic.”
It is here then that a manager’s people skills must come to the fore. And, evidently, if the only outcome seems to be relieving the employee of their duties, keeping them informed every step of the way should help take away some of the sting. “These situations are never going to be nice,” admits Morris. “You need to make sure that, throughout the entire process, you are happy that you have done everything within your rights to get this person back to work.”
And such an approach extends to the period immediately following a dismissal, adds Morris. “It is about maintaining that relationship even after they’ve left,” she says. “Maybe they need some extra support with counselling, for example, to get them through to another area of employment that is not specifically within your business, but could certainly help them. Because you want them to walk away from your business knowing you have done everything possible to keep them there.”
Unquestionably, as with all things of this nature, any decision will impact not only on the parties directly involved, but equally the wider workforce. A balance must therefore be struck between the privacy of the employee, and the concerns of his or her colleagues. “The first thing is to maintain the confidentiality of the patient, because you don’t know what you can and can’t say until you have agreed with that particular person,” Morris explains. “For example, with a terminal illness, they may be dealing with it in a different way to another person.”
In that sense, the imperative to do things in the right way is simply more pronounced. Vivian concludes: “It is about making sure that the impact of the medical condition has been considered in terms of that individual’s fitness to work, but also the impact on the rest of the team as well.”