Some employees might refuse to take sick leave, even when their poor health is impacting others. How should HR respond?
We’ve all seen a coworker coughing and sneezing at their desk, looking worse for wear. You might suggest they log off for the day and take some sick leave, but they insist on pushing through.
If the employee doesn’t seem well enough to be at work and you’re concerned about the impact their poor health may be having on those around them, can you direct them to take sick leave?
Joanne Alilovic, Employment Lawyer and Director of 3D HR Legal, says ‘yes’, but there are limitations.
Telling them to take sick leave
As the first port of call, communicate your concerns with the employee. This might prevent the need for a more directive approach.
“Approach the situation by telling them you don’t think they should be at work today, and perhaps give some examples, whether it’s that they look unwell or are constantly coughing and sneezing. Just ask them if they want to take a sick day,” says Alilovic.
“Start with that because a lot of employees will agree that they should be at home resting. They might’ve just shown up because they felt guilty about taking a sick day.”
“When your private matters are drifting into the workplace and impacting others, it becomes a workplace issue and employees need to understand that.” – Joanne Alilovic
If, however, the employee insists they’re healthy enough to push on, you might need to take a more direct approach.
“In this case, you can say, ‘I’m concerned about you and the impact you being sick at work might have on others.
“Explain that you promote a healthy workplace and have concerns that they aren’t fit for work today. As a result, you need them to get a medical clearance from their GP, or some other suitable evidence.”
This ensures you have covered your obligations to maintain the safety of your workplace, and the safety of that individual employee, says Alilovic.
“The employee might come back with a clearance saying they’re fit to work. But if their medical certificate says they’re not, then it’s on that employee to take leave until such time that they aren’t sick anymore. They need to rest until they are fit again. As an employer, you have the right to get confirmation that they are fit before they return.
“Employers need to remember they’re not doctors. It’s not up to them to determine whether someone is healthy enough to work.”
Set clear expectations
From the get-go, employers can make clear that they are able to direct an employee to take sick leave where they are unfit to work.
Alilovic suggests including a fitness for work clause in an employment contract.
“It could say something along the lines of, ‘If we’re concerned about your fitness for work, then we can direct you to see a doctor and we have the right to view copies of the results from your doctor.’
“That way, people aren’t surprised if one day their employer says to them, ‘You need to go and get a medical certificate to show that you’re fit for work,’” says Alilovic.
Read HRM’s article about when you can ask for more than just a medical certificate here.
“It all comes down to communication. Whether it’s your views on the importance of taking sick leave, or your views on the procedure for taking sick leave, make your expectations really clear.”
An employer’s communication about this should pertain to both physical and mental health, she adds.
“I’ve seen situations where an employer noticed changes in how someone was working, or in how they were behaving, and they were really concerned. It becomes a very delicate conversation because all health is a private matter and the employee might want to keep it to themselves.
“But when your private matters are drifting into the workplace and impacting others, it becomes a workplace issue and employees need to understand that.”
Build a supportive culture
An employee’s reluctance to take sick leave could be rooted in the workplace culture.
“It might be that your culture rewards people for showing up and getting the job done even when they’re not feeling well, because there’s a perception that you’re showing your true dedication by coming in even when you’re sick,” says Alilovic.
Organisations need to create conditions that give employees permission to take sick leave, she says. Strategies could include:
- Establishing a healthy workplace policy
“In most instances, a sick leave policy tends to cover the procedure – i.e. ‘If you are sick, these are the steps you need to take.’“There could be another policy that conveys the importance of staff looking after themselves – i.e. ‘We want to have productive workplaces and for you to feel you can take leave as needed to maintain good health in order to be productive and effective at work,’” says Alilovic. “Communicate that sick leave is there to be taken.”
- Leaders practicing what they preach
“If leaders are coming into the office blowing their nose or coughing left, right and centre they’re going to give the impression to their team that people are expected to work when they’re sick, and that’s what’s needed to get the job done,” says Alilovic.
“On the contrary, if you have a leader who takes time off to properly rest and recover, that’s going to convey a strong message to your team about the need to put yourself first.”
- Managing workloads
An employee might try to push through if they feel taking time off will make their workload unmanageable. Or they might feel they need to continue working while on leave. This is a concept known as leavism.
It’s an employer’s responsibility to ensure there’s scope in the team for others to pick up the slack where needed, so the employee isn’t hit with a mountain of work when they’re well again.
“If these things aren’t considered, it doesn’t give someone the time they need to rest and get themselves back to good health.”
She adds that employers should be open to arriving at a middle ground position in consultation with the employee. For example, the ability to work remotely would prevent the employee from spreading germs in the workplace.
However, there are times when giving an employee the option to continue working – whether in the office or remotely – is going to slow their recovery time, and harm their wellbeing.
In these instances, taking leave might be the only option.
Want to establish clearer sick leave and healthy workplace policies?
AHRI’s short course, Develop and implement HR policies, can help.