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Working While on Sick Leave: What Employees Need to Know

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You can be the best employer in the world, but you can't perform miracles - people are bound to get sick from time to time. In fact, on average, each of us takes just over four sick days per year.

Dealing with sick days (especially when taken by people you can rely on) can be difficult, and part of the challenge is knowing what to do if someone continues to work despite being on sick leave . The simple answer is that there is nothing legally stopping them from doing so.

But the law is only a small part of the story, there are many things to consider including the well-being of your team and your liability as an employer. Here you will find out everything you need to know about how your employees work when they are sick.

Types of sick leave

There are two types of sick leave - short-term and long-term - and the type of leave plays a big role in how you respond to it.

If a team member is only out for a few days with a cold, it probably won't be a problem for you. However, if the sick leave extends to several weeks, it can cause headaches without a proper handover.

Employee self-certification

All UK workers can take short-term sick leave themselves for up to seven days in a row (including weekends). You do not have to provide any evidence of your illness or injury or even see a doctor.

The self-certification element comes into play when the employee returns to work and you can ask for details about their sick leave. How you do this depends on your sick leave policy, but typically this is done via a self-certification form or email.

On sick leave

If someone is on sick leave for more than seven consecutive days, they must provide proof of their illness with a fitness certificate (usually a sick note) from their doctor.

Such a certificate states either that the person in question is “not fit to work” or that he or she is “possibly fit to work”. If the latter is the case, you may be able to make changes to the job so that the person can return to work sooner rather than later.

People who are on sick leave for more than four weeks are considered "long-term sick", but there is no real difference between this type of absence and a sick leave of less than four weeks.

What should you do if an employee is on sick leave?

There are no laws that say someone has to work while on sick leave while they are sick. It really depends on how you as an employer want to handle the situation.

It is obvious that someone who is on sick leave because they cannot come to work is not able to work at all. But that doesn't mean you can't ask them for a handoff or an update so their work can be continued by someone else. If they just have a cold, they won't mind if you ask them to answer a few simple questions.

If you're going to be in touch with them regularly to keep them updated, you'll have to make several decisions. On the one hand, staying in touch with someone who is on sick leave can be a good thing because it makes them feel valued. On the other hand, the contact may be perceived as pressure, causing stress, guilt or frustration, thus only making the situation worse.

When deciding how to contact a sick employee, use common sense. They know how serious the illness is, and that should tell you everything you need to know about whether the person can still think about work.

What should be done if an employee works while on sick leave?

If you know that someone is working during an illness, even if they are on sick leave from a doctor, the situation is more difficult.

Continuing to work during the illness could worsen the person's condition and delay their recovery. This is bad news for you because you risk breaching your duty of care as an employer.

There is also the ethical question of whether it is right or wrong to allow people to put their work before their health - there is no concrete answer to this.

In most cases, it is best to make it clear to your employee that they should not work while on sick leave. You can let them know by phone or email if they get sick, but as always, prevention is the best medicine.

An effective absence policy that sets out your attitude towards working (or rather not working) when you are sick can prevent the problem from occurring in the first place.

Can employees return to work before their sick leave expires?

If a member of your team has been given sick leave by a doctor but feels recovered and able to return to work before the sick leave expires, they are allowed to return.

You don't need a new medical certificate confirming your ability to work - the decision as to whether you are fit or not is yours. But if you accommodate them with adjusted hours or responsibilities when they return to work, you make it easier for them and appreciate it.

Can you fire someone who is on sick leave?

The simple answer to this question is: Yes, you can fire employees if they are sick. However, you must use exactly the same procedure that you would use if the employee was not on sick leave. This means that there must be a valid and justified reason and a proper disciplinary procedure must be followed.

You cannot fire someone who is on sick leave just because they are sick, but if they are on sick leave after committing an unacceptable offense, it is perfectly legal to start the dismissal process.

What about statutory sick pay?

The statutory sick pay entitlement is a maximum of 28 weeks. This can be a one-off absence, but also blocks of absences that last 4 or more days and are less than 8 weeks apart if someone is regularly sick.

Since statutory continued payment of wages is limited, you should track sickness periods using a vacation and sickness counter.

Understanding sick leave complexities is crucial for employers. IceHrm offers solutions for compliance and effective management. Learn more!

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