Employee Relations

Can you contact an employee when they are off sick?

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As an employer, it’s easy to be tempted to contact an employee when they're off sick, especially if it's a long period of sick leave. And likewise as an employee, it’s difficult to know if it’s okay for your employer to contact you when you’re on sick leave, and what’s classed as harassment.

In this guide, we’ll answer all your questions about sick leave regulations for both employers and employees.

Can employers contact employees on sick leave?

There is no law or regulation that states that employers can’t, or shouldn’t, contact employees when they’re on sick leave. In fact, it’s recommended that the employer and employee stay in regular, organised contact to ensure general health and well-being. This is especially important if the sick leave is over a long period of time.

The employee and employer advisory service ACAS provides important guidance on keeping in touch with employees when they’re off sick. However, every employee and employer is an individual and handles sickness in different ways. It’s crucial to talk to your employer or employee about your sick leave regulations so you can each have a clear understanding of the processes.

Our social media survey says… it depends

To get a better understanding of how the general public feel about contacting employees on sick leave, we asked the following question on social media: Should you call an employee who’s off work sick?

  • 27% said no
  • 18% said yes
  • 5% weren’t sure

But an overwhelming majority of 50% said it depends on the circumstances. What are those circumstances? When is it OK to dial the number of an employee who’s been on sick leave for days, or worse? Read on to find out more.

How to set up guidelines on keeping in touch with sick employees

Employers and employees should stay in contact with each other if the employee is off sick. However they should agree to some guidelines that will help keep this contact regular, and not cause any stress for either parties. It should be agreed:

  • How often the contact should be
  • How the contact should be done (phone, email, text or other)
  • Who the contact should be with (line manager, another manager or an HR manager)

These guidelines help to maintain healthy boundaries, especially if the sick leave is for a longer period of time or if the employees sickness concerns their mental health. HR software with integrated absence management features can help HR teams keep on top of communications.

5 things to consider when contacting employees on sick leave

As an employer, it’s important to set up the contact guidance stated above. However, it is very tempting to get in touch if there’s an issue, such as a work project deadline. We’ve spoken to real life employers and employees to get their opinions on contacting employees when off sick. Here are a few key points they’ve made for you to consider.

1. 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 for the day, as usually this is often resolved quickly.

“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.”

2. Your duty of care

As stated above, trust is really important. However, as an employer, you do have a duty of care about the employees health and wellbeing. Calling an employee gives you an opportunity to check in and see if you are able to give them any support, or if they have any updates that might help both parties.

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.”

3. 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.

4. When calling about work-related matters, use common sense

Of course, beyond simply ‘checking in’ with an employee, there could be the issue of outstanding workloads, especially when the employee is off for a longer sick period. How far should you go in calling sick employees about work-related matters? Employment lawyer Helen Dallimore, writing for FootAnstey, says it's important to use common sense.

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 to ask. 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.

5. 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 to respond to a phone call from your employer when off sick

Imagine yourself as an employee who is off work sick. 

As an employee, you should remember that in most circumstances your employer is checking in on your welfare and general health. It’s important to ‘use your own judgement’ in how you respond, depending on how the employer is adhering to the sickness contact guidelines that they have discussed with you. For example, if they’re calling more often than they said they’ll contact you, it could add to your stress. 

Even if you think your employer may be breaching these guidelines, it’s crucial to not overreact and discuss the terms of your sickness amicably. This is both to not affect your current state of sickness, and to come to a good resolution between employee and employer.

What is considered harassment from an employer when off sick?

There may come a time where regular, organised contact from an employer spills into the category of harassment. Unfortunately this can impact the employees recovery, and in worst case scenarios, their happiness with their employer. 

There are a few things that may be considered harassment:

  • Unregulated, excessive contact in ways that breach the guidelines discussed with your employer (i.e. turning up at your home)
  • Pressure to work
  • Unnecessary threats of disciplinary action

Questions to think about when contacting an employee who is off sick

It's hard to know how an 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 about a certain work task. However, if you’re contacting them to check on their welfare, this is okay as long as it’s against the guidelines you set out with them for the duration of their sick leave.

Managing sick leave is a crucial part of your business

Sickness is bound to occur in every business. How you manage this sickness, and how you go about contacting your employee is dependent on your own guidelines - particularly those set up in your company handbook and those discussed with the employee. 

Our absence management software will help your business efficiently manage sickness. You’ll be able to see exactly how employee sickness impacts your business, and if you’re complying with HR regulations such as return to work processes. On top of that, it handles all of your other absences such as holidays using an intuitive Absence Planner.

Sick leave FAQs

There is no legal upper limit to the number of sick days employees can take; you can ultimately set your own guidance on the threshold on how many sick days is too much. The Office for National Statistics states that employees take an average of 4.4 days per year. However you can also calculate the impact of sickness on your business by using Bradford Factor Scoring.

If an employee is sick for more than 7 days, they must provide their employer with a ‘fit note’ (also known as a sick note or certificate). The fit note will state if the employee is either ‘not fit for work’ or ‘may be fit for work’. An employee can get this note from a number of places: GP or hospital doctor, a registered nurse, an occupational therapist, pharmacist or physiotherapist. GOV.uk has plenty of guidance on fit notes to help employers and employees.

If an employee is eligible for SSP (statutory sick pay), they can get it paid by the employer for up to 28 weeks.

Employees can go about their normal day and do normal activities whilst off sick, for example going to the shop or walking the dog if the sickness allows them. They’re also able to go on holiday whilst sick for a number of reasons. Check ACAS guidance for the guidelines on this.