With the NHS backlog at an all-time high as a result of COVID-19, increased waiting times for treatments, procedures and diagnostic tests can cause uncertainty for those left in limbo. As an employer, supporting your team whilst they’re waiting for diagnosis or treatments can potentially reduce sickness absence or staff shortages.
“Accommodating employee absence or ill-health incapacity is one of the greatest costs and challenges associated with employing staff, particularly for small business employers,” says Hannah Thomas, employment solicitor at FSB Employment Protection.
“Inevitably, long waiting lists for diagnostics and surgery can make it difficult to obtain meaningful medical advice regarding when an employee may be fit enough to resume their normal work duties from a business planning perspective.”.
How long are waiting lists?
NHS Diagnostic Waiting Times and Activity Data revealed that at the end of December 2021, over 1.4 million people had been referred to, but were waiting for, one of 15 key diagnostic tests. With some conditions taking several months, if not years, to diagnose, and many more people waiting for the initial referral or GP appointment, it can be a difficult time for many.
“Diagnostic testing activity and waiting times have been hugely impacted by the pandemic, in part due to a reduction in testing ability and COVID-secure measures, and some missed or delayed referrals due to a fear of getting or spreading the virus,” explains Christine Husbands, FSB Care. “This means there are a huge number of people living with a great deal of uncertainty at present whilst they await a diagnosis, treatment plan, and prognosis."
This period is emotionally distressing and many people will be living with physical discomfort or pain, with a lot of uncertainty and worries about the future. Even after referral, statistics showed that in December 2021 the average patient waited 12.5 weeks for treatment, according to the British Medical Association (BMA).
What if your employee isn’t fit for work in the meantime?
An employee who is waiting for surgery may or may not be fit enough to continue working in their current role. In order to comply with health and safety legislation, where the employee is well enough to work in some capacity while they are awaiting surgery, it’s essential that you conduct a risk assessment with your employee to identify any workplace adjustments that need putting in place in light of any medical conditions or impairments.
You will need to have an understanding of the employee’s condition and how their illness, injury or disability for which they are awaiting surgery puts them at a greater risk of injury or ill-health. Possible sources of information can include:
- a documented meeting with the employee
- fit note
- general observations of the employee
- medical reports (if relevant - see for example the template ‘letter to doctor to ascertain operation and convalescence time’ in the employment section of the FSB Legal Hub)
Where an employee is disabled, under the Equality Act 2010, you will need to make reasonable adjustments so that they can continue to work where possible. Particularly for small businesses, some adjustments identified may not be practical to implement in the circumstances, so you will need to discuss with your employee what you can reasonably accommodate. Temporary adjustments could include working from home or changing work hours.
Where you are unable to put in place the adjustments suggested by the employee’s GP in a fit note, the employee will remain on sick leave. They may be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay in that circumstance. Where your employee remains on sick leave or is unable to work in their usual capacity, you will need to decide on the best way to manage this. This may involve recruiting an additional member of staff to cover for the employee on a temporary basis, or you may decide to ask existing staff to cover the work.
How can you support your employees?
“Support can commence before a condition has been confirmed so that employees can benefit from the support, reassurance, and help to manage the symptoms whilst they wait for tests, test results and follow-on appointments,” says Christine Husbands, FSB Care.
1. Emotional support
Your employee might be feeling worried, frustrated, angry, or anxious. These are all common emotions during a period of waiting with no answers. Talking to friends and family may not be an option for everyone, particularly those who feel they do not wish to burden others until a definite outcome is known. At times like this, a lot of reassurance is needed, that the symptoms are real but also that there could be many explanations or outcomes.
It’s natural for fear of the unknown to become all-consuming, with many employees imagining the worst-case scenario coming true. Having an independent specialist to discuss everything with can be a real relief for many employees experiencing this waiting game. It can also help them prepare to communicate their situation to family, friends, and others.
2. Physical support
Some employees need more than just a sympathetic ear when they encounter delays in their tests and treatment. Support can help employees with symptoms and pain management which not only have a physical manifestation but which can also lead to mental health issues when experienced on an ongoing basis.
Physical support may also be required if the individual has caring responsibilities for others. Support can help your employee understand their options and investigate solutions for children and eldercare, for example.
Your employee is likely to feel frustrated where there are delays to diagnostics and treatments, particularly if they are having to cope with living with physical discomfort or pain, or may even ‘downplay’ any incapacity so that they can continue working. It’s important that you note any general observations you have about your employee’s ability to continue working safely in their current role under your general duty of care towards their staff from a health and safety perspective.
3. Practical support
Last but not least, there is also more practical support available which can help your employee to:
- Navigate the NHS or private healthcare options, as this can be overwhelming
- Prepare for GP or consultant appointments, so they know what questions to ask
- Understand medical terminology, treatment plans, and options
- Look at private medical insurance or other employee benefits
During an overwhelming and worrying time, having someone on hand to guide your employee through their options and signpost them to useful resources or organisations can be invaluable. This is especially the case if your employee is dealing with a complex or long-term health condition.
If you’re unsure what support is available at these early stages, you can reach out to FSB Care to find out more. FSB Care is not private medical or health insurance, or a replacement for NHS services, and your employee should always contact their GP first. However, the team can ensure your employee has all the support they need to utilise all services available and provide valuable practical and emotional support.