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How does being off sick work?

Published 01 June 2020

It’s probably a safe bet to say that most of us will not achieve something Jim Owen did during his working life, but the chances are that you’ve never heard of him.

The dedicated council surveyor was reported to hold Britain’s best sickness record with not a single day off in 43 years (1)

It is an extraordinary attendance record, that means Jim had no first-hand experience of how being off sick actually works.

For an employee knowing what is expected of them and what will happen when they are off as a result of ill health is essential.

Employee absence is a significant cost to businesses and employers should have a sickness absence policy in place to reduce it.

Failing to comply with such a policy can lead to disciplinary action being taken against an employee, and in extreme cases dismissal.

Coronavirus is a human tragedy that has had a devastating impact on the global economy.

An employee with the symptoms of the virus (a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to their sense of smell or taste) should self-isolate and not attend work (2)

All employers should have a procedure in place for reporting a sickness absence. It should explain the rules and what will happen during such a time.

Employees should notifiy an employer of a sickness absence on the first day of illness.

The requirement may be that this is done  by calling in and speaking to a manager or supervisor, rather than sending a text message.

A sickness absence policy can specify that the employee makes the call personally, unless they have a medical emergency.

If an employee fails to provide notification of an absence it will normally be treated as an unauthorised absence, which can result in disciplinary action being taken.

Anyone classed as an employee, earning an average of at least £120 and who is ill, self-isolating or ‘shielding’ for at least four days in a row (including non-working days), will qualify for Statutory Sick Pay also known as SSP (3)

The current rate of SSP is £95.85 a week, which will be paid for up to 28 weeks.

Some employers will have their own sick pay scheme in place which will specify that employees may be paid their full wage for a specified period of time.

If an employee is off for seven days or less they should not be asked to provide medical evidence that they are ill.  Instead they should be asked to fill in a self-certificate.

If an illness last for longer than seven days then the employee will need a fit note, formerly known as sick note, from their doctor (4). It will say the employee is either not fit for work or fit for work.

Employees are usually considered to be ‘long-term sick’ once they have been off work for four weeks or more. How such an illness will be managed should be detailed in sickness absence policy.

Measures in place for such situations can include:

· Occupational health (OH) involvement. An OH assessment can evaluate an employee’s condition, identify any support needed or reasonable adjustments required. A small employer without access to occupational health can request a report from the employee’s GP.

· Risk assessment. To help identify any contributory workplace risks that may be a factor in the absence. The assessment can help to identify any such risks and how to prevent them.

· Return to work interviews. Help to welcome the employee back to work and arrange how they will be supported

During a long-term sickness absence an employer should be supportive, stay in touch with the employee and keep them informed about any workplace changes.

There will unfortunately be cases in which an employer has exhausted all options to enable a return to work and having established it cannot be facilitated will have to consider dismissal on capability grounds (5).

Any such decision must be fair in order for an employer to avoid a subsequent employment tribunal claim.


(1) Britain’s best sickness record [Internet] [Cited 1.6.2020]

(2) An employee with the symptoms of the virus [Internet] [Cited 1.6.2020]

(3) Statutory Sick Pay also known as SSP [Internet] [Cited 1.6.2020]

(4) Employee will need a fit note if sick for more than 7 days [Internet] [Cited 1.6.2020]

(5) Exhausted all options to enable a return to work [Internet] [Cited 1.6.2020]

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For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 

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