Employment law – Sickness
What are my rights to sick pay?
In most cases, your contract of employment will spell out what your rights are to company sick pay, and over what period. There is no absolute entitlement to company sick pay, as this will be in your employer’s discretion.
You may be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (“SSP”), regardless of what is in your contract of employment. This could be in addition to company sick pay if your employer has a sick pay policy.
The payment limit of SSP is generally, 28 weeks in a 3 year period. The weekly statutory sick pay amount is £109.40 per week from 6 April 2023.
The qualifications for SSP are that you must:
- have 4 or more consecutive days of sickness (including Sundays and holidays) where you are incapable of carrying out work (so the first 3 “waiting days” do not qualify);
- notify the absence to your employer within their set deadlines- or within 7 days if they do not have one;
- supply evidence of incapacity, such as self-certificate or doctor’s certificate, known as a “fit note”;
- earn at least £120.00 (before tax) per week.
If you are off work again within 8 weeks of the first absence, then you do not need to clock up another 3 days before SSP becomes payable on the 4th day. These are known as “linked waiting days”.
There are a number of excluded employees who are not entitled to receive SSP. These include those taken on for a specified period of no more than 3 months, and employees who are pregnant and are sick during the maternity pay period. This is not an exhaustive list.
Any contractual remuneration paid to an employee for a day of sickness is to be offset against the SSP due for the same day. An employer can never pay you an amount in total which is less than the SSP due.
Your employer may have reserved the right to amend or withdraw discretionary sick pay (in part or in whole) where performance or conduct concerns have been raised, or where you are subject to capability or disciplinary procedures. It is therefore advisable to check your employer’s sickness absence policy when (or before) you are signed off work.
When do I need a fit note from my GP, or can I self-certify my sickness?
Fit notes used to be called “sick notes”. A fit note is an official written statement from your doctor giving a medical opinion on your fitness for work, and whether you need one depends on the length of your sickness absence.
You must provide your employer with a doctor’s “fit note” (previously called a sick note) if you are off sick for more than 7 days in a row (including non-working days such as weekends).
If you do need a fit note, it will say whether you are “not fit for work” or “may be fit for work”. If it is the latter, your GP may suggest what changes need to take place and your employer should certainly discuss any changes with you that may help you return to work. If there is no agreement on these changes, then you must be treated as “not fit for work”.
Your employer may still ask that you to “self-certify” that you have been off sick, and they will usually provide their own form for you to complete. This is simply a formal way of letting your employer know that you are not well enough to work.
Your GP doesn’t have to now physically sign the fit note, as it can be provided electronically.
From 1st July 2022, fit notes can be certified and issued by nurses, occupational therapists, pharmacists and physiotherapists in addition to doctors.
What if there is a delay in my getting a fit note?
You should contact your employer to explain why there is a delay (for example because there is a difficulty getting an appointment) and also give them a timescale for when you expect to be able to provide this.
What could happen if I don’t produce a fit note to my employer?
If your employer is not satisfied that you are ill, and no evidence of sickness is provided (despite requesting the same), it can withhold your statutory or contractual sick pay.
Ultimately, the matter could be treated as an unauthorised absence and result in disciplinary proceedings.
Am I entitled to take time off work for hospital, dentist, or other appointments?
Your employer might give you time off work to visit the doctor or dentist but they’re not legally required to do (whether paid or unpaid) unless your contract of employment says so, or because you suffer from a disability. Your employer can insist you make these visits outside work hours, take holiday leave or make the time up later on. You should check your contract of employment to see what rights you have.
If you have a medical or dental emergency requiring urgent treatment, this is likely to amount to a sickness absence (not a medical appointment). The same applies where you need to be admitted to hospital as an inpatient, for example to undergo an operation. In these scenarios, either statutory or contractual sick pay will be due.
If you are pregnant, you have a specific statutory right to reasonable time off work with pay to attend antenatal appointments made on the advice of a doctor, midwife or registered nurse. Antenatal care may include relaxation and parent craft classes as well as medical examinations.
If you are a prospective father, or the partner of a pregnant woman, you can take unpaid time off to attend up to two antenatal appointments.
When do I have to notify my employer if I am sick and cannot go to work?
At the very latest you should notify your employer before it is time to start your usual work. If your employer has a sickness absence policy, then you should comply with any deadlines contained in that. It is common to require employees to notify the employer that they are unwell at least 30 minutes before they are due to start work, although this can be longer if, for example, cover needs to be arranged.
What evidence do I have to give to my employer to show that I am unwell?
It is generally up to your employer what evidence to request, however your employer is not allowed to ask for a medical certificate (or ‘fit note’) for the first seven days of absence. For the first seven days, you should be able to ‘self-certify’, which usually means telling your employer that you are unfit for work and providing a brief description of your symptoms and when you expect to be able to return to work. After the first seven days of absence, your employer may require to submit a medical certificate from a GP confirming that you are unfit for work, ‘signing you off’ for a specified period of time.
How often is my employer allowed to contact me while I am off work?
There are no set rules about how often your employer should contact you while you are off sick, it all comes down to what is reasonable. It is common for employers to ask employees to speak to their line manager every day for short absences (such as the flu) to provide an update on their well-being and when they expect to be able to return to work. For a longer absence, less frequent check-ins would usually be required – once or twice a week, for example. You should check your employer’s sickness absence policy for any guidance on how often your manager (or HR) should be contacting you.
Your employer owes you a duty of care, so it is often necessary for there to be some contact while you are on sick leave to check on your well-being. It also might be necessary so your employer can conduct appropriate business planning, such as booking temporary cover. However, the amount of contact should be reasonable. Too much contact can be intrusive and can prevent you receiving adequate rest, which can exacerbate health problems or put pressure on you to return before you should (potentially infecting other staff members or resulting in another period of absence).
The level of contact which is appropriate will depend on the circumstances, for example it is likely to be reasonable to contact an employee with a broken ankle more often than an employee who is signed off with work-related stress.
Your employer certainly needs to tread more carefully if your illness is one that could be aggravated by making contact (e.g. conditions such as stress, depression and anxiety, particularly work related). If it is not necessary to communicate with you at this time, and such communication causes you more distress, your employer could be acting unreasonably and in serious cases, may be grounds for your claiming constructive dismissal.
What is an occupational health assessment?
An Occupational Health Assessment is a medical examination performed by an Occupational Health Physician. It can be used by your employer to assess your physical and mental health and report on your wellbeing during or after a period of sickness. Its main aim is to advise employers on whether you are fit for work, and if not, make recommendations on what adjustments could be considered to ensure a safe/healthy working environment for you.
Your employer may have its own occupational health service or they may use an outside agency. At the assessment, you are likely to be asked about your health issue, what treatment you are having and any concerns you have returning to work. You may need to provide your consent for your medical records to be sent to the occupational health physician for a more comprehensive understanding of your medical issues.
Following your assessment, it could be recommended that you are either fit for work, or should have a phased return to work. It may also be that you would need to be assessed again before any firm agreement can be made for you return to full duties.
Can my employer ask me to do any work if I am on sick leave?
Again, there are no set rules about how much your employer can ask you to work while you are on sick leave, it is all about what is reasonable. For a short absence, it might be reasonable to ask an employee to answer queries about their work that other employees are covering for them, for example. However, asking a sick employee to do substantial work which interferes with their recovery is likely to be unreasonable. Similarly, if you are on stress leave, asking you to carry out any work or answer work-related queries is likely to be viewed as unreasonable unless this has already been agreed with you.
You should check what your employer’s sickness absence policy says, but it is good practice for your employer to confirm how much you feel able to do before making any requests.
Can I return to work before my fit note runs out?
Yes, you could inform your employer of your intention to do this if you feel well enough, however your employer will want to be sure that you are not putting your health at risk by returning early. Some employers will want your GP or medical expert to provide their opinion about this and it may be reasonable for them to do so depending on your individual circumstances.
Can I still be disciplined while I am off sick?
If there are pending or new disciplinary proceedings, your employer is not expected to delay the same indefinitely (including a disciplinary hearing) simply because you are off sick. They should not, however, go ahead in your absence without very good cause. Your employer should only proceed to hearing if they have exhausted other avenues, for example, inviting you to make written submissions if you cannot be present, or trying to obtain an occupational health report on your ability to participate. A failure to act reasonably may amount to unfair dismissal or even disability discrimination.
How easy is it for my employer to dismiss me as a result of my sickness?
First and foremost, you need to be working with the same employer for 23 months and 3 weeks in order to qualify in making a claim for unfair dismissal (and not be under any prior notice). In the absence of meeting this qualifying period, your employer can generally dismiss you without fear of a claim being made- unless you have a disability which counts as a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act. Please see the link below or click here to skip to the disability discrimination page for more information on this, including what reasonable adjustments should be considered.
It is wrong to think you can never be dismissed, just because you have an illness. Your employer should, however, go to some lengths to find out about your current medical position, which would usually involve consultation with your medical advisers and possibly a referral to your employers own occupational health therapists or medical experts. Indeed, employers will often reserve the right in your contract of employment for their medical experts to be able to provide a second opinion on the state of your health. Whether or not such a right is reserved, you could be considered to be acting unreasonably if you refuse to agree to such a request (although your employer will be in a stronger position where there is a contractual right reserved).
You may especially find that you are asked to attend an examination by occupational health professionals where you are on long term sick leave. Any occupational health report would usually cover the diagnosis, likely prognosis, treatment and timescale for any return to work, as well as detailing the duties you may be able to perform. The report should also give guidance on any reasonable adjustments to working arrangements that could be made to assist you. Your employer can then make an assessment of your fitness for work. You should take legal advice if you do not agree with the assessment.
If your employer can show that it has taken all necessary and reasonable steps to ascertain the state of your health together with future prognosis, then they are more likely to be seen as acting reasonably should a decision be ultimately made to dismiss you on the grounds of ill health.
Although medical opinions will be important, an employer’s decision will not always be unfair if it goes against the recommendations of medical professionals. A tribunal would need to assess the reasonableness of your employer’s decision to dismiss you in all the circumstances, meaning that a dismissal could technically still be fair, even if you have been assessed as being fit to return to work. That said, if you have multiple medical opinions which all agree that you are ready to return to work, then your employer’s decision is more likely to be deemed unreasonable.
Where your sickness amounts to persistent short absences by unconnected minor ailments, you should ideally be told what level of attendance you are expected to attain, and that dismissal may follow if there is no sufficient improvement. Your employer should be careful to adhere to the correct disciplinary procedures (such as prior formal warnings) as an Employment Tribunal could otherwise well find that a dismissal is unfair on procedural grounds.
A Tribunal would also consider whether your ill-health or sickness was caused by your employer’s own actions. This could have a bearing on whether your employer’s ultimate decision to dismiss you was fair or unfair. Quite often, such an illness amounts to stress and anxiety due to pressure of work, or bullying and harassment by your employer.
If your sickness amounts to a disability under the Equality Act, you may have a claim for disability discrimination. Please click here to access the disability discrimination page.
What if my employer has an absence and sickness policy?
Authorised absence can often be dealt with by policies by your employer, such as:
- requiring absent employees to phone in by a given time on each day of absence;
- having a return to work interview to ensure there are no underlying issues;
- taking disciplinary action if unexplained absence continues.
If your employer has such a policy in place which has been drawn to your attention, you will be in a weaker position if you do not adhere to it.
Note: Your employer should have regard to the duty to make reasonable adjustments when issuing disciplinary warnings for sickness absence where you have a disability. A blanket absence management policy, under which all employees (both disabled and non-disabled) are treated equally is therefore capable of placing you (as a disabled employee) at a substantial disadvantage.
This means your employer may have to extend the time in which disciplinary action can be taken under its attendance management policy, and have particular regard to your periods of sickness absence.
Can I easily be dismissed for capability reasons if I am contractually entitled to long-term disability benefits or PHI?
No. It has been held that a term must be implied into your contract of employment in these circumstances, that you cannot be dismissed for incapacity reasons where you have a contractual right to receive disability or private health insurance benefits from your employer. This applies even if your contract of employment had a termination clause which expressly reserved the right to terminate for incapacity.
Does my agreed phased return to work mean my employer can reduce my pay to reflect the reduced hours worked?
If you return to work part- time after a period of absence of less than 12 months, you are entitled to the same pay and benefits that applied to your full-time job on a pro-rata basis. This means that, apart from making pro-rata reductions in accordance with the number of hours worked, your employer cannot change your pay or other contractual benefits to your detriment just because you are now working part time.
Am I still entitled to receive statutory sick pay on a phased return to work?
Yes, you should receive SSP for the days that you are sick in the normal way. Any day for which SSP is paid will count towards your maximum entitlement of 28 weeks.
Can I carry out other work (if I have 2 jobs) whilst I am supposed to be on sick leave?
Yes, it is possible that you can be medically unfit for work one under one contract, while still capable of work under another contract. This is on the assumption that there is no overlap in the hours of 2 roles so that you are not being paid twice for the same hours. If the 2 roles are similar in nature, however, you may have difficulty explaining the inconsistency. Also bear in mind that your contract of employment may state that you cannot work for a second employer without consent.
What if I am sick whilst on holiday?
If you become sick during your holiday leave, you are entitled to rearrange your holiday for another date later in the year. In practice this means that your employer will paying you sick pay rather than holiday pay for the period during which you were ill.
You will still need to follow normal sickness absence procedures, for example, reporting to your line manager or obtaining medical evidence of their illness, otherwise you may not qualify for company sick pay.
Can I be forced to take holiday when I am sick?
You cannot be forced to take holiday while you are sick. This includes where you become ill during a holiday.
Can I continue to accrue holiday while on sick leave?
Yes, you can. Sick leave and holiday leave have different functions – the former is to recover from illness, and the latter is for rest, relaxation and leisure. Accordingly, those on sick leave should still be entitled to accrue holiday. This follows a ruling from the European Court of Justice.
Can I carry over unused holiday to the next holiday year when I have been on long term sick leave?
Yes, you can up to a maximum of 4 weeks. However, if you return to work before the end of the holiday year, but fail to take your holiday during the remainder of the year when you had an opportunity to do so, you would then lose the right to carry-over.
What are my rights to full notice pay whilst on sick leave?
ACAS has updated it’s guidance on sickness absence at work. Please click here to access this.