In smaller companies, there can be a huge temptation to contact an employee whilst they're off sick. Perhaps they’re the only one who knows the name of that important contact who works for your prospective client. Or maybe they are the only person who can remind you what the final decision was about the team budget.
A survey found that 51% of employers have contacted a member of staff who was on sick leave. But hold off on the temptation, because however much you absolutely must have that information, there are some great reasons for not contacting employees whilst off sick.
Adequate time to rest
Many employees may take sick days as a way of getting some rest from work. In small businesses with 5 to 249 employees, we found that 42% of employees had thrown a sickie in order to have a rest day.
While you probably won’t agree with their pulling a sickie in the first place, you obviously won’t know if this is the case or not, and even if it is, they may well be in need of the rest. If things at work are too much for them, getting in touch is not going to alleviate any of the stress they are under.
Aggravating the illness
Where an employee is suffering from an illness that could be worsened by you getting in contact, then you should carefully consider whether or not it is the right thing to do. Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and work-related stress can all be aggravated by contact from an employer.
You can’t want your business’s culture to be one that expects staff to always be available, so it’s vital to have some consideration for your employee and their condition before making contact. If not, you could create a snowball effect that only delays their return to work even more.
Pressuring staff to return too soon
While you may not mean to, contacting an employee whilst they’re off sick could exert pressure on them to come back before they are ready. If your call makes them feel guilty for being off, they could return before they truly feel able to.
As before, with mental health conditions, this may aggravate the situation. But even with other illnesses, you may be encouraging a staff member to return who is still contagious. While you get one employee back a day or two early, they may well not be very productive if they are still feeling under the weather. Equally, you could also risk other staff members catching the illness and then being absent for several days each.
Proliferating the “always on” culture
Employees answering work emails whilst they were off sick or away on annual leave is not uncommon. This “always on” culture is prevalent in today’s business world. We’re glued to our technology and this makes it easy to tap out a quick email reply on the train home or to check for messages just before we go to bed.
But this sort of continual connection to our working lives is not good for us. Being available like this makes us put extra pressure on ourselves, which is not good for long-term productivity, motivation and sometimes health.
Can they even help?
If you’re contacting employees whilst off sick with the hope of them helping out – giving you some crucial information, or advising on their area of specialisation – then it’s quite possible that they may not even have the information you need. They certainly won’t have any documents or files at home with them, and it’s very possible that they may have trouble remembering the precise information you are after.
It’s simply not fair
Many people are happy to be contacted while they’re off sick. But it does to some extent depend on why they’re off. If they’re recovering from a foot operation, then a call with the boss isn’t going to be too taxing. But if they have full-on flu, they may not even be able to take a call.
The bottom line is that it’s not up to you to determine why they are off sick, or if their reasons are genuine or not (until they return, maybe). It is, however, your place to give them the space and time to recover and to not place undue burdens on them when they are off sick.
Of course, there are always some situations when it is necessary to contact staff who are off sick. If you’re undergoing changes that could have resounding consequences on the individual or the business, for example, then it would be wise to get in touch.
Likewise, sensitive and previously arranged contact can often put a longer-term sick employee at ease and stop them feeling isolated and out of touch. Facilitating the logistics of a smooth return to work is easier when there has been some level of contact throughout the absence.
But you should always exercise caution before you contact an employee whilst they're off sick, and assess why you need to contact them, what impact it will have and whether it can wait.
Author: Melissa Jones
Mel is the Content Manager at breatheHR. She regularly contributes insights into the current small business climate with a focus on how HR is crucial to the success and growth of UK startups.