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.
It's always the right thing to refrain from contacting employees who are sick - because however much you absolutely must have that information, their health must always come first.
Can employers contact employees who are off sick?
ACAS provides guidance for employers around contacting employees on sick leave. ACAS guidance states that employer and employee should stay in regular contact during absence (particularly if the employee is on long-term sickness absence).
However, how often contact should be, what medium it should be in (phone, email, face-to-face) and whether the line manager, a different manager or a member of HR should be in contact should be agreed by both the employer and employee.
ACAS advises that keeping in contact is a way of checking on the employee's wellbeing, along with seeing if they need any support. This can also be an opportunity to discuss any updates or changes happening at work that the employee needs to know about.
There isn't any formal guidance about contacting employees around less pressing workplace matters - but we think your culture should do the talking here. If it's not a business-critical question or information that the employee absolutely needs to know, avoid asking them where they got to on their latest project or deadline. If anything, asking questions such as this when your employee is ill could actually prolong their sickness and even cause them stress. Best practice is to let them focus on their recovery and let them know you're here to support them.
Adequate time to rest
Some employees may take sick days as a way of getting some rest from work, or as a way of dealing with stress, especially if they can't vocalise how they're feeling.
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 don'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.
Pressurising 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're 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
Breathe's sick report also found that more than half (52%) of UK employees answer work emails whilst they were off sick or away on annual leave. 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.
People - and health - first
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: Aimée Brougham-Chandler
Aimée is a Content Assistant here at Breathe. She enjoys writing about topical HR issues & helping readers find solutions. In her spare time, she's commonly found amongst books.