Fast Track: `I feel as if I might crack up!'

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I AM the head of a small department with a long-term absentee employee, which is making my workload intolerable. Senior management seem completely uninterested and have refused to have anything to do with the situation, although I have almost begged for support.

The member of staff in question is litigious and wholly unconcerned about the effect her lengthy and frequent absences have on anyone else. She has been diagnosed as having a mild form of an untreatable illness and is unable to function efficiently when she is at work. I'm being made to feel lacking in compassion when actually I feel as though I might crack up!

The senior management have recently been strongly criticised for the non-existent staff development on offer, and I am strongly aware that "holding the fort" has prevented me from pursuing and developing all sorts of projects.

Am I being unreasonable? I have recently applied for another job, but I actually feel as if I'm being forced out. Virginia, Wokingham

Give yourself the best opportunity to manage the situation by facing it directly now. Obtain as much information as possible regarding company policy/practice regarding sickness/absenteeism. Request an independent specialist doctor's report on her condition and the effects on her work. The onus is on the employer to behave reasonably, and on the employee to co-operate with an investigation of this type.

Demonstrate compassion openly while also addressing the issue fairly yet firmly in accordance with policy guidelines. Tell the individual that you are concerned about her absenteeism; that you are monitoring it and that you want to work with her to find the best solution. Tell your line manager that you want support and insist that you meet regularly to discuss/report progress.

Depending on the doctor's prognosis, some options to explore might be counselling, special equipment, or part-time work in her present role; helping her to find another more appropriate role internally or externally; early retirement due to ill health; or a disciplinary process, which could eventually lead to dismissal. The key is to record information throughout e.g. everyone's absenteeism rates, and all your discussions on the topic.

Hilary Walmsley, Human Resources Partnership, author of Transform Your Management Style (Kogan Page 1998)

There are three related problems in this situation. The first is the sick employee. Absence should be treated consistently throughout an organisation, but that does not mean that an employer cannot be more generous, especially to an employee with an untreatable illness.

The second is the additional burden the absence is placing on you. The Employment Appeal Tribunal decided in Whitbread plc t/a Thresher v Gullyes 1994 that an employer who did not provide sufficient support for a manager, and so made her job very difficult, was in breach of his implied duty of mutual trust and confidence, which would enable the employee to bring a successful claim of unfair dismissal. Obviously this is a question of degree. Even if your own difficulties are great, your first step should be to raise the matter with your manager, formally if informal attempts have so far failed, and to seek a practical solution to your difficulties.

The third problem is your health. If your health is affected, or likely to be, this too should be drawn to your manager's attention. Your employer has a duty to take reasonable steps to avoid or minimise stress caused by your work - but must be aware of the problem first.

Olga Aikin, Senior Partner, Aikin Driver Partnership, Employment Law Advisers

First of all, try to get more information from your member of staff. Have a meeting and let her know that you both need to recognise there is a problem and the situation can't continue. Then discuss some possible work solutions - perhaps she could have more flexible working patterns which will allow for the ups and downs of her illness, or she could be transferred to a less demanding job within the company.

Ask for temporary help to bridge the gap when she isn't around. Are senior management ignoring the problem because they feel there is nothing they can do about her? This may not be the case. You will need legal advice, but it is possible to dismiss someone on the grounds of incapacity. It may sound harsh but if her illness is never going to get any better and she can't fulfil her contractual obligations to you, it is not fair to her or your company to expect her to perform in a job.

Angela Barron

Institute of Personnel and

Development Policy Advisor

If you have a work problem and want expert advice, write to Carmen Fielding, Fast Track, Features, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail