If an employee is sick, it is necessary that they take time off work to recover in order to care for their own health and keep everyone else safe too. However, when an employee’s sickness absence continues for an extended period, it can cause significant disruption to the business and may even raise questions about their employment.
Here at Guardian Support, we are often questioned about how long an individual can be on sick leave before being dismissed from their job. The answer to this question is tricky, as it depends on various factors, from the length of the absence to the employee’s contractual entitlements.
In this blog, we will explore the UK’s rules and regulations surrounding sick leave and fair and legal dismissal. We will discuss long-term sickness absence and how it differs from short-term absence, managing sickness absence, and the potential consequences of dismissing an employee in these circumstances.
Whether you are an employer or HR professional looking to manage sickness absence in your workplace or an employee concerned about your employment status while on sick leave, this blog will provide a comprehensive guide to navigating the complex world of sickness absence and dismissal.
How Long Can You Be on Sick Leave Before Dismissal?
The answer to this question is largely based on the circumstances of the sick leave. However, employees on short-term sickness absences may be entitled to full contractual pay for a certain period, and after that, they may be entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks.
After the 28-week period has ended, the situation becomes more complicated. Employers are required to follow a fair process, including obtaining medical advice, considering adjustments or accommodations, and conducting regular review meetings with the employee before making any decisions about dismissal.
There is no fixed time limit for this process, and the length of time an employee can be on long-term sickness absence before a legal dismissal depends on the specific circumstances. Employers have to follow the rules set out in the Equality Act 2010, which protects employees with disabilities from discrimination and unfair dismissal. Therefore, employers have to make reasonable adjustments to support employees with disabilities in keeping their jobs, even if they are on long-term sickness absence.
How Long is Long-Term Sickness Absence?
In the UK, long-term sickness absence is generally considered an absence that lasts for more than four weeks. And as we’ve seen above, there is no set maximum duration or set period for sickness absence.
Depending on the specific situation, the employer may be legally required to make reasonable adjustments to support the employee’s return to work, especially if the employee has a disability. These adjustments can include adjusting work hours, providing equipment or aids to support the employee’s work, and offering alternative work arrangements, like a work-from-home option.
Employers may also have to hold periodic review meetings with the employee, seek medical guidance regarding their health status, and explore alternatives such as a gradual reintroduction to work or reassignment to a different role within the company.
Can Employers Choose Long-term Sick Dismissal?
If an employee’s long-term sickness absence is causing significant disruption to the business or is unlikely to improve, the employer may consider terminating the employee’s contract on the grounds of incapacity. However, before choosing this route, employers are required to follow the fair procedure outlined above. If the employee has a disability, the employer must also ensure that they are not discriminated against under the Equality Act 2010.
How Much Sickness Absence Should Employers Accept?
Of course, with the disruption to businesses and the doubtless dislike that some people have for work, organisations may have valid concerns that an employee is faking sickness. If you think this may be the case, we recommend that you get advice from a qualified HR consultant.
If this is not specifically the case, but you still want to know if there should be an endpoint to an employee’s sick leave and sick pay, a few factors will have to be considered, including the industry, the type of work being performed, and the size and resources of the company.
Generally, companies will have a sickness absence policy that outlines the amount of sick leave that is considered acceptable and the procedures that should be followed when an employee is absent due to illness. These policies may also outline the company’s expectations regarding the frequency and duration of sickness absence and are crucial for the continued smooth running of an effective business.
Striking a fair balance between supporting employees’ health and well-being and ensuring that the business can continue to operate effectively is crucial. High levels of sickness absence can impact productivity and morale, not to mention the bottom line, so companies may need to take steps to manage sickness absence, such as offering flexible working arrangements or promoting health and wellness initiatives.
It is also important for companies to be mindful of the fact that employees may have genuine ill health that requires time off work and that taking a strict approach to sickness absence can be counterproductive. Companies should strive to create a supportive and understanding workplace culture that encourages employees to take care of their health, well-being and mental health while ensuring that the business needs are met.
What Can Employers Do if They Suspect Fake Sickness Absence?
While most employees have genuine health issues, not all of them do. However, even if there is reason to believe that an employee’s sickness absence is not genuine, employers should proceed with caution and follow the correct procedures to investigate the situation.
After reviewing their organisation’s sickness policy, the next step to potential dismissal would be ensuring that the employee is following the correct procedures when they record sick leave data and document their absence. Employers can also review the employee’s sickness absence history and attendance records and look for patterns or irregularities that may suggest the absence is not genuine.
If the employer suspects the employee is not genuinely sick, the next step is to seek medical evidence to support their suspicions. This could involve requesting a medical report from the employee’s GP or arranging for an independent medical examination.
If it can be established, with evidence, that the employee’s absence is not genuine, disciplinary action can be taken. However, it is again important for employers to proceed with caution when dealing with suspected fake sickness absences and a disciplinary process. Employees have a right to privacy and confidentiality regarding their health, and employers must be careful not to discriminate against employees with legitimate health issues that are not immediately apparent. Unfair dismissal claims can be highly problematic and expensive for organisations, as is disability discrimination.
Need Employment Law Advice?
Navigating the complex issues of absent employees, sickness leave, and the rules and regulations in place in the UK can be very challenging, and the consequences of getting it wrong are distressing. If you are currently in a situation where a long-term absence may turn into an unfair dismissal claim, get in touch with us today. We have many years of experience in dealing with all aspects of employment law and would be happy to assist.
We also offer managing sickness and absence training for managers, so your team can handle these situations in the future.