July is Good Care Month

This month presents the opportunity to raise awareness about the increasing care needs that our ageing population has and to celebrate the amazing work that carers do.

In light of this we’ve been thinking about the demands that complex care needs can place on families. At some stage it’s likely that we’ll all benefit from carers supporting dependent family members or indeed ourselves.

To tackle this issue there are plans afoot to introduce a statutory right for employees to take up to a week of unpaid carers leave each year to help staff meet their caring commitments, but there is no date for this change as yet.

Employers are likely to benefit from a considerate approach to their staff’s complex situation – particularly while it remains so difficult to hire and retain good people. It can be hard to know where to start, but being open to discussions with staff and willing to allow some flexibility is likely to go a long way.

An interesting case arose recently which highlights this issue. The case of the nurse who took almost 300 sick days off work was reported widely within the media. So let’s look at the facts of her situation and reveal the issues raised by this case. 

Caroline McKenzie was a nurse, and also the sole live-in carer for her grandmother who had dementia, an inoperable cancer and severe lack of mobility. She was employed by the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust between 2010 and 2020, when she was dismissed as a result of high absences. She later claimed unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.

At first sight, the thought of an employee with almost 300 sick days would be alarming to any employer. But, it’s important to set out some more detail around this case to truly understand it.

Firstly, the almost 300 sick days were spread throughout Ms McKenzie’s employment. In the 12 months leading up to her dismissal, she had 85 sick days. Although this is still high, it is far from the headline grabbing figure of 300.

Secondly, and more importantly, the NHS Trust overlooked information from Ms McKenzie that her ability to manage her anxiety/ depression and migraines was likely to improve significantly. Ms McKenzie was on medication, accessing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and her aunt had moved in to help with caring responsibilities. As a result, occupational health confirmed that Ms McKenzie was fit to return to work. There was good reason to believe that her attendance would improve and that this improvement could be sustained, but this was ignored.

When faced with a difficult decision based on someone’s health and attendance at work, where there is good reason to believe that an employee’s attendance will improve to a sustainable level, that has to be taken into account when making a decision about their future employment.

What can we learn from this case? 

  • Have more open discussions with staff
  • Always be aware of the bigger picture 
  • Review past absences – but don’t forget to also look forwards as well