Staff with long-term conditions ‘should have right to return to work’

Employees with long-term health conditions and disabilities should have the same right as new mums to return to their employer within a year, according to a report aimed at improving the employment rate of people with disabilities.

The study by the Resolution Foundation calls for a 12-month ‘right to return’ period from the start of sickness absence to help stem the flow of disabled people leaving the jobs market.

The report revealed that just 2.4 per cent of disabled people who had been out of work for more than a year went back into employment each quarter.

This is down from 15.5 per cent for those who had been in a job in the last year, a far steeper rate of decline than for non-disabled people.

The Retention Deficit report called for the government to pursue a “damage prevention” approach to boosting disabled employment, focusing on keeping people in jobs.

“The government should learn from the success of maternity policy by introducing a statutory ‘right to return’ period of one year from the start of sickness absence,” said the study.

“This would introduce a clearly demarcated period of time, extending beyond the current statutory sick pay period, during which employers would keep the same job available to return to – or an equivalent one – as in the second six months of maternity leave.”

The report said contact between employers and employees, and notices of return to work, could operate in a similar fashion to maternity leave. Dismissals on sickness grounds would not be permitted within the year, except where an employee actively disengaged from support and rehabilitation.

Where a staff member came back to work from long-term sick leave within a year, firms could be offered a rebate on statutory sick pay costs, said the Resolution Foundation.

“The objective would be to encourage a change in behaviour around supporting and accommodating returns. Therefore we suggest the government considers the merits of targeting the scheme to maximise behavioural change, and to minimise deadweight and cost.”

At present, employers have a general duty to avoid direct and indirect discrimination against disabled people, and are obliged to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to prevent disabled job applicants and employees being at a disadvantage.

Campaigning body Disability Rights UK, which publishes advice on getting back into work if you develop a health condition or impairment, said the recommendation to keep jobs open for a year deserved “the fullest consideration”.

“Getting this right is also essential for employers, if they are to retain and attract the best talent,” said a spokeswoman. “Keeping in touch with staff who are off with a health condition, reassuring people their job is there for them, making any adjustments needed quickly and smoothly: all these measures help, and there are expert disabled people who understand the challenges and solutions in-depth who can advise and assist.”

Resolution Foundation said 46 per cent of disabled people were currently in jobs, compared to 80 per cent of non-disabled people. Halving this gap would require a 1.5 million increase in the number of disabled people in work, according to the think tank.

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