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My Employee is sick - How do I manage?

No one has superpowers and is able to never ever get sick. There's going to be a time in your business when one or more of your employees is off. So how do you manage them being off and their return to work?

What will this post look at?

This may be a fairly lengthy post, so let's look at what will be covered. You will need to understand why your member of staff is off ill and when they will come back to work. It will also cover how you and any other managers can help with the process of having an employee come back to work.

The Basics

In order to keep running the business with as little impact as possible while an employee is off ill (and to try and keep the levels of absence down) you will need to:

  • Monitor absence levels - By monitoring levels you are able to find out how much absences are costing you, you can also keep a record of any absences and find out if there is any pattern when it comes to certain employees. Effects on the business that can arise from absenteeism can include:
    • work falling behind schedule
    • damage to customer service
    • reduced morale from the remaining workforce
    • the cost of hiring someone in a temporary position.
  • Implement a clear policy - By having a policy set out in the workplace no one is left confused about what to do should they get ill. This policy should contain:
    • how employees tell you they are sick
    • what a return to work interview is
    • if any disciplinary action will be taken if the business finds that sick days are taken unnecessarily.
  • Understand the role of the GP - GPs can help with the return to work process and can issue a Sick Note or help interpret it if required.
  • Finally, Think about the impact on the employee - After a long absence, the employee may have undergone physical and emotional changes. You may need to change some things in the running of the business in order to make them feel welcome again.

Short-term Sickness

When you're starting out and have a small workforce any absence can take its toll on the business. Most illnesses do not last long (maybe up to a fortnight), so how do you manage when this happens? First well look at what the employee should be doing.

  • Speak to you / their manager as soon as possible. In many cases businesses have it written into their policy that they should be notified within an hour of the employee's usual starting time. During this conversation the employee should mention the nature of their illness and when they are likely to return to work.
  • If the illness lasts less than 7 days, they should provide a self certificate.
  • If the illness lasts 7 days or more, they should provide a Statement of Fitness for Work (Fit Note) from their GP.
    • The Fit Note allows the doctor to advise you if the employee is unfit for work or fit for some work. GPs can only give general advice and cannot assess an employee on their specific role.

How do you know they're Actually Sick?

Employees can sometimes claim to be sick when they're actually just after a day off from work. Whereas other employees can actually be sick. So how do you know who's really sick and who's faking?

  • There may be another reason for them wanting a sick day, other reasons can include:
    • An emergency - If they manage to contact you and have explained that its an emergency situation, try and get them to explain the basics to you and arrange for them to contact you later in the day when the situation is in hand. When they contact you later, be reasonable with them and discuss when they are likely to be returning to work, make sure you give them enough time to deal with what they are going through.
    • A serious family or personal problem - Be flexible with them and come to an agreement about when they are expected to be back in work. If they expect theyll be away for more than a day then agree to how and when theyll keep in touch with you. Remember: employees may be entitled to unpaid time off work due to dependents problems under the Employment Rights Act 1996. But some employers do allow for compassionate leave. You will need to decide what to do when you write your policies, so that managers are not left to use their discretion in sensitive situations.
  • If you feel as though the reason for time off is not justified then you should say that you expect them to be in work as soon as possible so that you can fully discuss the matter face to face. You should also advise them that if the reason is found to be unjustified, they may have to take the time off as annual leave.
  • If theyre missing and have not phoned in or made any other form of contact then try to reach them. If you are unable to, then discuss the matter when they do come into work next.
Hand holding stethoscope

What about those that are off sick long-term?

Handling long-term absence can be very delicate, this can be because the illness could be very serious and need to include a recovery time. This can lead to you needing to have a sympathetic approach to the situation. Also, you may begin to feel that they are exaggerating the situation in order to have longer off from work than would normally be required.

No matter what the problem is, the absence can still cause a strain on the business. So while you're dealing with this in a sympathetic way you will need to:

  • Assess if the remaining members of staff can cope for a while without a replacement, or whether you will need to hire someone on a temporary contract.
  • Keep in regular contact with the employee about their position, keeping them informed about their sick pay and explain any changes within the business. Also ask them how they're feeling, without pressing them about coming back to work. They will appreciate the thought you're putting in and will be more likely to stay with the business if they feel they are being treated in a manner they deserve.
  • Consider asking the employee for permission to contact their GP, or if they feel they should see a company doctor in order to assess:
    • When a return to work will be possible.
    • Will there be a full recovery and will they be able to return to work in the same role as previously.
    • Should the return to work be phased? Maybe a part-time return or flexible hours to begin with.
    • Whether the employee is now classed as disabled and any additional arrangements that will need to be made, such as access to the building or a change in the type of workstation they are using.

The Employee is ready to come back to work - what needs to be done?

When your employee is feeling well enough to return to their work there are a few different processes you should go through.

Firstly you will need to hold a return to work interview. During this interview you will need to:

  • Welcome the employee back to work and check that they are well enough to resume their duties. During this welcome back, make them feel valued and appreciated as a part of the workforce. You should also update them on any changes that have happened during their absence.
  • If they have Fit Note, you should discuss the details of it with them. It may say something like May be fit for some work in which case you will need to ask the employee what they think they are capable of doing and try and work out a new working arrangement with them until they are feeling better.
  • Try to get a better understanding of their problem. They may have had the time off because of stress and if this is the case you may need to change things within the business, if that's what was causing the stress. For more on stress, please check out our previous post, How to Manage Stress in the Workplace. Also, it may have been the case that they had to take the time off to care for a relative, if this is the case then you should try and be supportive of them and understand what their needs are.

What if the employee has become disabled?

In cases where the employee has become disabled during their absence from work then you are legally required to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace in order to accommodate their needs and ensure they are not put at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the workforce. This could be changing some of their equipment to make it more suitable for their needs, such as an ergonomic chair.

Doctor with patient in wheelchair

What if an employee is repeatedly absent?

If you find that you have a certain employee who keeps taking days off sick for minor ailments or who you do not believe is really sick, then there are steps that you can follow.

  • Agree trigger points with employees. This can make it clear that repeated absence is not acceptable and that it can lead to formal action. For example, if you have a certain employee that has had 4 separate weeks worth of absences over the course of the year you can do the following:
    • Ask for them to forward on their doctors notes so that you can see the exact reason them are having the time off work and so that you can work with them in order to help them. Remember: You need to have their permission for this to happen.
    • Sit down with the employee and talk about why they are taking the absences, there may be a problem in the workplace, such as bullying or stress, which is making them feel as though they need to have the time off.
  • Remember to be sensitive with their needs. If they need to have repeated hospital appointments then they may not wish to discuss the finer points of them with you and you may need to accept that they will be back and fore the hospital on a regular basis.
  • However, if the absences are repeated, unexplained or unjustified they can be treated as a conduct issue. This may lead to disciplinary action needing to be taken.

Your Duty of Care

Within the workplace, you have a legal responsibility to protect the wellbeing of your employees. This duty of care includes the health and safety laws, but its not limited to them. It can also include:

  • Limiting physical hazards - check that employees have had enough time for breaks and that they know how to safely operate any machinery that they will be using.
  • Reducing stress (where possible) - make sure employees are not exposed to some of the causes of stress, and talk openly and honestly with them if you can see they're under pressure.
  • Promote awareness - by talking about smoking, drinking and healthy habits you can bring about a healthier workplace with happier employees.
  • Talk to, and use, occupational health - this can help employees come back to work and help you to understand what is needed of you as an employer.


Illness happens and at one time or another some of your employees will be sick. Its up to you as an employer how you deal with this. Some of the points raised above should get you off to a good start if you find your business is starting to struggle as a result of employees taking absences.

Remember to always seek professional advice before acting.

All references to current legislation are correct at the time of writing, and should only be used as a guide. We recommend seeking professional advice before acting on the information in this article.

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