6 reasons not to contact an employee whilst they're off sick

9 min read  |   1 December, 2023   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

A woman stands next to a window and a plant wrapped in a big jumper holding a mug and also her phone, which she's looking at.

In smaller companies, it can be tempting 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. And that's just one of the reasons not to contact them


Can employers contact employees on sick leave?

In short, yes, employers can contact employees who are off sick - but there are some guidelines to consider when doing so. 

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.


Why it's important to maintain contact with an employee while they're off sick

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 company culture should do the talking here.


Discover fresh wellbeing insights for employers to bake into your company culture 


Is it okay to talk to employees about their workload while they're off sick?

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

The best thing to do is to let them focus on their recovery and let them know you're here to support them.


Why you shouldn't contact employees who are off sick

Even if you think they're well enough to chat about work - or they even try to suggest they are - there are at least 6 key reasons why you shouldn't contact employees on sick leave:

1. They need adequate time to rest

2. It could aggravate their illness

3. You could be pressuring staff to return too soon

4. Contacting them while they're off proliferates the 'always on' culture

5. They may not be able to help anyway

6. It's simply not fair - and could be seen as harassment


But these are just the headlines: There's much more to each of these 6 reasons:


1. They need 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 workplace 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. 


2. It could aggravate their 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.


green cloudsWant to promote mental health in your workplace? Here are 10 practical steps you can take to support your people.


3. You could be 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're ready. If your call might make 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.


4.  Contacting employees while they're off sick proliferates 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.

5. The employee off sick may not be able to help anyway

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.


6. It’s simply not fair - and could be seen as harassment

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. 


Can contacting an employee while they're off sick be considered harassment?

Although there are no laws forbidding employers contacting their employees while they’re off sick, it can become excessive if some boundaries aren’t clearly established.


How to ensure contacting employees off sick doesn't look or feel like harassment 

It’s natural for employees to feel like they are being harassed if they’re getting 1,001 questions while they’re off. Equally, employers can feel uncomfortable contacting employees on sick leave for fear of harassing them while they recover. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way—you just need to establish some simple expectations for both parties.


1. How often should the employer contact the employee?

It’s important for employers to keep in contact with employees while they’re off sick. It’s just a question of how often—and this will depend on the type of leave the employee is on. 
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. 


2. How will the employer be contacting the employee?

Consider the best approach for all parties. Is it best to contact them over the phone? Over email? Or face-to-face (particularly if it’s over a long period of time)?

3. Who will be contacting the employee while they’re on sick leave?

Keeping the conversation to one consistent contact is good for both the employee, and the employer. The employee then knows exactly who to contact if need be, and can trust that this one person will have the full picture of their situation. After all, no-one likes having to re-explain themselves time and again to different people.

For employers, having one consistent contact for the employee off sick means it's clear who is responsible for maintaining that contact, and keeping the business updated. Most of the time, this person will be the manager of the employee on sick leave.


Put people, their health and wellbeing first

Bottom line, you should always exercise caution before you contact an employee whilst they're off sick. First, assess why you need to contact them, what impact it will have and whether it can wait.

Of course, there are always some situations when it is necessary to contact staff who are off sick. If, for example, you’re undergoing changes that could have resounding consequences on the individual or the business, then it would be wise to get in touch. Equally, maintaining regular, arranged contact with employees off sick will help many feel valued and not forgotten.

And that can all add up to making a world of difference to your company culture and the wellbeing of the people who make up your company.


Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter (2023) & English Language & Literature graduate (BA Hons), Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With 3 years' content marketing experience, Aimée has a passion for writing - and providing SME HR teams with solutions to their problems. She enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: from employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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