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How to avoid feeling even worse when having to take time off work sick

Published 14 October 2019

If you are unwell and unable to attend work knowing what to do and what is expected of you can ensure your return to work is a smooth one.

The last thing you need when off sick is the added worry about what your employer may do. It is why knowing what is expected of you during periods of short or long illnesses is crucial.

Unauthorised absences and long-term absences can lead to you being dismissed in some circumstances. They can also be costly for your employer and hit productivity.

It may seem like an obvious thing to write, but if you are unable to attend work because of ill health the first thing you should do is alert your employer as soon as possible

The unexpected challenges faced by a day or two off here and there can put a strain on colleagues who may have to provide cover at the last minute.

Employee absence is a significant cost for many organisations, yet research suggests that only a minority of employers monitor that cost.

Last year it was reported that sick staff cost British firms £77 billion annually. The ‘Britain’s Healthiest Workplace’ survey is said to have found that employees lose, on average, the equivalent of 30.4 days of productive time annually due to sick days, or underperformance in the office as a result of ill-health.(1)

Short-term absences such as colds and flu, toothache, nausea, stomach bugs, and strains and sprains are said to account for most workplace absences.  Short-term sickness absence is an illness that last for less than a week.  

If it is more serious and you are unable to work for four weeks or longer, you are classed as long-term sick.  As a last resort, your employer can dismiss you while you are on long-term sick leave. Your employer does have to be careful before doing so.

If you are unreasonably dismissed because of your sickness absence you can submit a claim to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal (2)

However, if your employer took all necessary and reasonable steps to ascertain the state of your health together with future prognosis, then it is more likely to be found to have acted reasonably should it dismiss you on grounds of ill health.

If you are on long-term sick, you will have to provide your employer with medical evidence. This is normally in the form of a doctor’s fit note, formerly known as a sick note (3). It is important to provide up to date fit notes after a previous one has expired.

You can expect your employer to contact you whilst on long-term sick leave. Keeping in touch is essential for it to understand the nature of your illness and provide any support that may be needed.

In this situation you may feel harassed by contact from work. There is no single perfect way of maintaining contact while you are on long-term sick leave. You should discuss and agree the best way to do so with your manager who is likely to contact you during this time. You should expect regular contact, at least monthly.

You should cooperate to the best of your ability and be expected to be asked to attend an occupational health assessment whilst on long-term sick leave.(4)

The aim of the assessment is to provide advice to your employer on your health and make recommendations on what adjustments could be considered to ensure a safe/healthy working environment for you. It can also be an assessment of your fitness to work.

ACAS has detailed advice and guidance in its Advisory booklet - Managing attendance and employee turnover (5). It provides details of what you can expect from your employer as part of fair absence management policy.


1.Britains healthiest workplace survey [Internet] [Cited 8.10.19]

2.Unfair dismissal [Internet] [Cited 8.10.19]

3.Fit notes [Internet] [Cited 8.10.19]

4.Occupational health assessments [Internet][Cited 8.10.19]

5.Managing attendance [Internet] [Cited 8.10.19]

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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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