This time the experts, Esther Smith and Martin Brewer give their advice on dealing with an employee away from work with anxiety and an eating disorder.
The question: Work-related anxiety
We have a junior member of office based staff currently signed off with “work related anxiety and an eating disorder”. The employee has been away from the office for four weeks now, and I was wondering whether I would be right to contact her to see if we can arrange a meeting to see how we can assist her in her return to work.
We are currently not aware of what exactly in the workplace caused her so much anxiety; she hadn’t raised any issues prior to calling in sick. I have only contacted her up until now to explain to her how SSP works and to acknowledge the receipt of her fit note (or not fit note as it were).
I don’t want to be over-zealous in contacting her and risk being accused of harassment or pressuring her to come back to work before she is ready, however on the other hand the company is not in a position to be carrying passengers and we do not want to be seen to be supportive in encouraging her position.
Martin Brewer, partner, Mills & Reeve
It is absolutely fine to contact the employee to ask how she is, whether she needs any support and to also, and from your point of view more importantly, try to get an idea of when she might return and what the anxiety issues are.
What you might find is that the employee says she will not meet you as she is signed off work as sick. A fit note, like the old sick notes, only says that the employee is not fit to work, that is to carry out the duties of her role. In asking an employee to attend a meeting to discuss how she is, a return to work etc. you are not asking her to work.
Thus she cannot refuse unless she is physically or mentally incapable of meeting you. So, yes, do keep in touch with the employee, do seek information on how she is and when she might come back to work.
Do this in writing, or if you speak to her on the phone do make a file note of the conversation or follow it up with a letter/email to her as you may at some point need to evidence what you did.
I have no issue with you contacting this employee, to see how she is doing and offer support. Indeed, I think that you may be criticised for not maintaining contact. However, given the stress issue here, you need to be careful about how you contact her and decide whether it is best for someone to give her a call or write to her.
There is the danger of being seen to be over-zealous, but so long as you are well meaning and the purpose of the contact is demonstrably to support and assist, rather than harass the employee about a return to work, you should be fine.
If your contact is not well received then use the opportunity to outline when you will contact them again, so that they can expect it and may not take unkindly to the contact. If there is no scope for a meeting now, suggest that you will review matters again in a month’s time, unless you hear from them first, and then make sure you follow it up!
Esther Smith is a partner in Thomas Eggar's Employment Law Unit. For further information, please visit Thomas Eggar.