Employee Relations

Can you contact an employee when they are off sick?

employee on video call

It’s not too hard to deal with the odd sick day here or there. It’s something HR is used to dealing with – and you have tools like the Bradford Factor and comprehensive HR software with absence management features to help ensure absence patterns don’t get out of hand. 


But what happens when an employee falls ill for longer than just a few days? Is it right to contact them, or should you let them recover in peace? Today’s article aims to find out.

Our social media survey says… it depends


We asked the following question on social media: Should you call an employee who’s off work sick?


 * 27% said a flat-out NO

 * 18% said yes

 * 5% weren’t sure


But an overwhelming majority of 50% said it depends on the circumstances. So what are those circumstances? When is it OK to dial the number of a person who’s been coughing their guts up for days, or worse?


4 min demo: Manage sick leave effectively with People HR’s intuitive absence management feature.


Don’t call sick employees – trust them, and let them recover


Trust your employees and allow them time off when they need it” is the advice of EZChildTrack president Jeffrey Thomas.


According to Thomas, trust plays a vital role in getting the most out of your team. He also advises against contacting employees who have called in sick – unless it is something truly important and work-related.

I would highly advise against contacting a sick employee he says. The only time I’ve done so is when we needed information that was time-sensitive.

First things first – you have a duty of care


I agree with Jeffrey Thomas that trust is really important. But I’m not quite convinced that you should just leave employees to get on with their illness unless you really, really need them.


You see, while your intentions might be good, you have to remember that in most circumstances, employees would rather be at work than be sick. Besides, as an employer, you have a duty of care.


According to Mandy Fitzmaurice, writing for HR news, “you are most definitely allowed to contact a sick employee when they are signed off, in fact you have a ‘duty of care’ to keep in touch and see how they are doing.

A quick phone call to ‘check in’ can be a very positive thing


For perfumer Huib Maat, of Pairfum London, receiving a call from his boss while off was exactly what he needed to relieve his fears.


"I had fallen while water skiing, which caused ear damage” he explains “and I could not fly back until the problem was cleared. This was a time when remote working was not feasible, so there was very little I could do for the company. But my boss did indeed call me to ‘enquire about my health’ – and I actually found the call very positive".


Maat says the phone call was helpful both for him, and for his employer. He says that while employers should be interested in the welfare of their employees, he also believes employees should care for their employer. And this phone call was a chance for him to remove any question marks over his absence, while making sure people were getting on OK without him.

When calling about work-related matters, use common sense and tact


Of course, beyond simply ‘checking in’ with an employee, there’s the issue of outstanding workloads. How far should you go in calling sick employees about work-related matters? Employment lawyer Helen Dallimore, writing for FootAnstey, says there are no hard and fast rules.


There are many situations where employers need to communicate with employees during sickness absence” writes Dallimore. “Employers need to use tact and common sense if someone is off sick, and exercise caution before contacting an individual.


Here are a few points Dallimore recommends employers consider before contacting an employee who is off work sick:


 * Why do you need to contact the employee?

 * Will the employee’s illness be aggravated by receiving a phone call?

 * Is your query urgent, or can it wait for their return?

 * Has the employee been initiating communication during their absence?

 * Could the nature of your contact be seen as victimisation?

 * Are you putting the employee under pressure to return to work before full recovery?


In a nutshell, use your judgement. If an employee is off work with a cold, then calling to ask where to find a certain file might not be too much of a task. But if an employee has a serious illness, and you’re calling to remind them how X or Y is going wrong because they’re away? You’re probably not helping them recover. And you might be making the problem much worse.

Give employees space – but without compromising inclusion


Grant Van der Harst is the Managing Director of Yorkshire-based road marking company Anglo Liners. And while he thinks that a little work-related contact is OK – for example, communicating the handover of projects for the time the employees will be absent – he also says that some situations should be handled with a lot more care.


"If an employee is faced with a more sensitive illness, such as long-term mental health issues” explains Van der Harst, “it is usually best to avoid contacting them. The most important thing to do is assess their background, in order to make an informed decision".


Van der Harst adds that you should continue to include employees, so they don’t feel isolated – but not to the point where they feel pressured into returning to work too soon. He also suggests referring to your company handbook, as your workplace may have specific rules or regulations in place regarding sickness in the workplace.

How would you respond to a phone call from work while you were trying to recover?


The trouble with ‘using your judgement’ is that it’s always hard to know how each employee might respond to a phone call during sickness downtime. So let’s gather a few thoughts on this. Imagine you were off work sick. How would you respond if your employer called to…


…remind you a project was overdue?

…ask where to find an important file?

…find out when you were coming back?

…see if anything could be done to help your recovery?

…ask if you’d mind coming in for a day?


By putting yourself in your employees’ shoes, you might find that you already know the answer to whether or not you should call them.