Working whilst signed-off sick:  advice for employers

4 min read  |   21 December, 2017   By Rachael Down

A woman is working from home and is stood up near her window with her phone in her hand. Her laptop is sat on her desk alongside some books and a cup. The room she is working in is full of plants and ornaments spread around the space.

You can have a great company culture, be the best employer in the world and do everything you can to make sure they stay happy and healthy. Sometimes however, staff get sick or injured and it just can’t be helped.

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But where does that leave you as an employer? Are they able to still work while signed off sick? What if they recover quicker than expected and can come back to work earlier? What if they are self-certifying, and is it different if the doctor has signed them off? 

Employee self-certification

If one of your staff members phone in sick, then they can self-certificate for up to seven days. What this means in practice is there is no need for a doctor’s note but you can ask them to fill out a form on their return to work explaining the reason why they were off. 

Getting signed -off sick

If an employee is sick for longer than seven consecutive days, including non-working days, they will need a doctor’s note, also called a FIT note. This will either say whether an employee is “fit to work” or “not fit to work”.

If your staff member is off for longer than four weeks, then they can be considered off long-term sick. 

What to do if an employee is signed off sick 

If an employee is signed off sick you might wonder if you should leave them to recover in peace, or if you’re allowed to contact them, or even if they should be working at all. There might be work-related matters you really need to talk to them about and projects that need handing over but where does it leave you legally? 


The law and employee rights 

The simple answer is there is no one right answer.

It ultimately depends on the circumstances but suffice to say exercising a bit of common sense and being cautious is a good idea. Is it an urgent matter or could it wait until the employee returns? Are you putting the employee under pressure to return before fully recovered? Could it be perceived as harassment or will their illness be aggravated by your contact? You need to consider all these aspects before contacting them. On the flip side, a phone call asking how they are can be a very positive thing, shows you care and can actually aid recovery.

Ultimately, you have to make a judgement call. If it’s a simple cold and you need to find out about handing over a project they were working on it’s probably fine. If it is a more serious long-term illness, contacting them about work-related matters might not aid their recovery. 

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What to do if an employee works when signed off sick

The question of whether an employee can work while signed off is also not cut and dried. It is possible an employee might be too ill to make it into the office but can work remotely from home. However, if they aren’t fit to make it to the workplace, then they are arguably not fit to work either.

Employees who work from home (WFH)

If your employee works from home regularly though and opts to do that whilst ill, then they could still be considered working. If you find they are working while they are signed off, either through their own volition or through the tacit consent of a manager, you may want to ensure this stops until they are fully recovered and speak to both employee and manager to make it clear they should not be working. 

One way to make certain everyone knows what should happen in the event of sickness is to include it in your sickness absence policy. You may wish to specify that if they phone in sick or are signed off by a doctor they are off sick and should not work under any circumstances. You can track their instances of sickness using an absence management system to ensure you're keeping on top of when these occur. However, you may also include clauses which specify how, when and after how much time an employee will be contacted to discuss work-related matters, their recovery and returning to work.

From an insurance perspective, it also makes sense to have such a policy in place - if you continue to allow an employee to work while signed off it could represent a breach of your duty of care as an employer and could make you liable for further damage an employee suffers if they continue to work whilst sick. 

If an employee does want to return to work while signed off, it’s good practice to get clearance from their doctor first that they are fit to carry out certain duties at work. Their doctor may also suggest ways they can return to work but their work can be modified to allow them to do so.


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Author: Rachael Down

With a passion for words, Content Specialist Rachel Down, is an experienced communicator with skills in journalism, content creation and web copy writing.

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