14 Nov 2023

SME Solutions for Extended Employee Absences

In the realm of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), every member of the team plays a crucial role in the company’s success. However, when an employee faces a prolonged absence due to illness, it can present significant challenges for the business. To navigate this situation effectively, SMEs need to implement strategies that support both the absent employee and the rest of the team. Research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicates that there are presently over 2.5 million individuals in the UK dealing with prolonged illness[i]. So, let’s explore some essential strategies to address prolonged absences due to illness in SMEs.

Develop a Comprehensive Sick Leave Policy

Employers should start by developing a Comprehensive Sick Leave Policy. A well-defined sick leave policy is the foundation for managing prolonged absences. It should outline the procedures for reporting illnesses, the documentation required, and any additional benefits or support offered by the company. A clear policy ensures that both employees and employers understand their rights and responsibilities, reducing confusion and potential conflicts.

Encourage Open Communication

Employers should actively encourage open communication from employees about their illnesses and potential extended leave.  This can be a sensitive topic, so creating a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their health concerns is crucial. Listen empathetically and be flexible in finding solutions that accommodate their needs.
According to the Equality Act 2010, employers are obligated to implement ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace to assist their employees and these adjustments might encompass flexible work schedules, granting time off for treatment, modifying the nature of tasks, or furnishing necessary equipment to facilitate the employees’ job.

Cross-Training Employees

Cross-training employees offers a multitude of advantages for employers. By providing team members with the proficiency to step in for absent colleagues, you create a safety net for the business. This means that even in the event of unexpected absences, crucial tasks can continue without disruption. This not only safeguards the workflow but also bolsters the overall efficiency of the team. A staggering 74% of workers have conveyed their frustration at not achieving their maximum capabilities[ii], attributing this shortfall to a dearth of opportunities for professional growth within the company. This compelling statistic underscores that employees are indeed receptive to cross-training initiatives.

Moreover, cross-training fosters a workplace culture that values versatility and adaptability. It encourages employees to expand their skill sets and take on new responsibilities. This not only boosts individual growth but also contributes to the development of a more well-rounded and capable workforce. Team members become adept at wearing multiple hats, allowing the company to navigate various situations with ease.

Explore Flexible Working Arrangements

Employees should consider offering flexible work arrangements, such as part-time schedules or temporary remote work, to accommodate an employee’s recovery process. 52% of all UK employees[iii] are now working in a hybrid role as of February 2023 which is a 22% increase compared with 2019 so flexible working is becoming more and more popular amongst businesses and should be considered by the employer. Flexible working can help employees gradually ease back into their roles, ensuring a smoother transition when they return to full-time work.

Document Processes and Procedures

Maintain thorough documentation of processes and procedures to ensure that tasks can be easily delegated or picked up by others in the absence of a team member. The use of a comprehensive CRM system and secure HR software can be key to maintaining these vital documents. This knowledge-sharing approach promotes continuity and minimises disruptions.


In conclusion, addressing prolonged absences due to illness in SMEs requires a combination of empathy, planning, and strategic implementation. By developing clear policies, fostering open communication, and utilising technology and flexible work arrangements, SMEs can effectively navigate these challenges and support both the absent employee and the rest of the team. Remember, a supportive and adaptable work environment is key to overcoming these hurdles and maintaining the resilience of your business.


[i] Office for National Statistics. [2021]. Rising ill-health and economic inactivity because of long-term sickness, UK: 2019 to 2023. Available at: www.ons.gov.uk/

[ii] Middlesex University London. [2023]. Professional practice and work based learning courses. Available at: https://www.mdx.ac.uk/courses/professional-practice-and-work-based-learning

[iii] HR News. [2023]. The Rise of Hybrid Working: 52% of the UK embrace flexible working. Available at: https://hrnews.co.uk/the-rise-of-hybrid-working-52-of-the-uk-embrace-flexible-working/