This is a complex issue for any manager: Can you ask an employee to work while signed off sick? Should you expect an employee to work while signed off sick?
Like all difficult HR issues, there are no clear answers to these questions. So let’s explore the issue in greater depth, to give you an idea of the options open to you when faced with this problem.
What it means when an employee is working while signed off sick
Sometimes employees get sick. Sometimes they get injured, either on the job or outside of work. It simply cannot be helped. That’s why you need a sickness absence policy so that your business can remain productive even when you’re not at full capacity.
The odd sick day here and there can be disruptive, but not too much. It’s only when employees are off sick for an extended period that you really have a problem on your hands.
Employees in the UK have a legal right to “self-certificate” for up to seven days. This means that they can decide they’re not fit for work, and you’re obliged to take their word for it. They don’t need to “prove” their sickness with a doctor’s note, but you might ask them to complete a return to work form when they return. Asking the employee to explain the reason they were off could give you an idea of how you might prevent any further absences in the future.
But if an employee’s out of action for more than seven consecutive days – whether it’s due to sickness or injury – then they will need a doctor’s note. They’ll need a note even if the seven consecutive days include non-working days. The note might also be known as a “fit note”, as it states whether an employee is “fit to work” or “not fit to work”.
Most businesses consider long-term sickness to refer to a period of absence that lasts longer than four weeks. Long-term sickness can really damage your business. It must be managed with care to ensure a thorough recovery for the employee while limiting the disruption to productivity. It means making “reasonable adjustments” to help the employee return to work without inconveniencing the rest of the team.
When an employee is signed off sick – commitments and expectations
What should you expect of your employees when they’re signed off sick?
Ideally, you should leave them to recover. Any disturbances could affect their recovery and lead to further absences down the line.
But what if the employee wants to work? Maybe they feel well enough to work, but not well enough to actually show up to work. Should you refuse them and instruct them to rest and recuperate? Or should you let them continue to work through their illness, even if working might affect their recovery?
There’s no single right or wrong answer to any of these questions. You need to consider things on a case-by-case basis. So let’s take a look at some of the issues you might consider when making that judgment call.
Key things to consider
If the employee’s off due to an injury, then they might have some difficulty moving, but they may still feel well enough to work. You’ll probably find it easy to reach an arrangement with the employee in this case – a way for them to work without affecting their recovery.
But if the employee’s absence is due to sickness, things might not be so simple. They may claim that they’re too ill to come to the workplace, but not too ill to work. Many would argue that an employee that’s too ill to come to work is too ill to work, full-stop.
Also, an employee who regularly works from home might simply continue to do so when they’re ill. Generally speaking, this is bad news. Physical or mental exertion can aggravate many conditions. And if an employee’s not feeling 100%, their work will inevitably suffer too.
So all things considered, you might want to discourage your employees from working while off sick – especially if they’ve got a doctor’s note. Expecting your employees to continue to work when they’re not feeling their best might suggest that you don’t truly value their wellbeing. It might even be viewed as a breach of your duty of care.
But people can get bored when they’re out of action for the long-term. They might be itching to return to work. They might call you and effectively beg you to let them work!
In this case, you need to advise them to speak to their doctor. They’ll be able to advise whether the employee’s well enough to work, and they might even be able to suggest some adjustments you might make to allow them to contribute.
Implement an absence management system
Like we said, employees, working while signed off sick is a complex issue with no easy answer. It’s up to you to decide what’s best for your team and your business. But most of the time it’s probably best that you just let sick employees focus on their recovery.
The main thing is that you communicate what you expect from your employees in your absence policy. This way you can ensure that everyone knows their obligations and commitments in the event of sickness – from getting in touch when they don’t feel well enough to work, to completing a return to work form after they recover.
We specialise in making absence management easy. Thousands of companies across the world depend on our advanced absence management software. Through empowering you to take control of your absenteeism, we could save you £289 per employee per year.
We make it easy for employees to keep on top of their entitlement, to book leave, and to report unplanned leave. We make it easy for you to track workloads, to set Bradford Factor trigger points, and to get the clearest possible overview of your absence data.
Our system is a shortcut to reduced absenteeism and improved levels of employee satisfaction.