Managing the “sickie” – a well-established workplace rite?

It is now when sickness levels increase due to the usual colds, coughs, flu’s and viruses that do the rounds at this time of the year. This is normal, and most employees will take some sick leave to rest and recover. However, there is a small proportion of the workforce that take sick leave to the level where it impacts on their employer being able to rely on them to carry out the duties of the role they are employed to do. This ultimately impacts on the organisation’s productivity and potentially reputation where client work is not delivered on time. It can also upset a well-functioning team if other employees become disgruntled and aggrieved because another team member is frequently absent and not pulling their weight.

Managing sick leave can be straight forward in some cases, and very complex in others. The problem can be rectified in some instances through a single conversation. However, in other cases the end result may be that the individual’s employment is ended due to medical incapacity or because attendance at work has not improved to a reasonable level despite the employer investigating the root causes of the absence, implementing supportive actions, and providing warnings and opportunities to improve attendance. Each case is unique and needs to be dealt with sensitively and with due process because of the potential for claims of discrimination and disadvantageous treatment where a disability is causing the absence.

However, employers should not be put off dealing with cases of unacceptable absence due to “sickness” where this is impacting on their business. There comes a point where a “reasonable” employer can make a robust decision, having followed a fair and appropriate process, about ending an individual’s employment as they are not able to provide satisfactory attendance in the workplace.

In managing frequent absence from the workplace due to sickness, you may want to consider:

Am I satisfied about the genuineness of the sickness absence, or is there a suspicious pattern of absence that suggests some or all of it may not be legitimate?

If you query the legitimacy of the absence, be clear on your reasons for this and use the processes within the Holidays Act 2003 to seek verification through a medical certificate. The Act allows employers to request a medical certificate at the employee’s cost where absence spans more than 3 calendar days, and at the employer’s cost if a certificate is requested. If the legitimacy of the sick leave is in question, then perhaps there needs to be some consideration and discussion with the employee about what workplace or personal factors may be contributing to the absence (e.g. addiction issues, workplace bullying, low morale or job dissatisfaction).

Are there any underlying medical, mental health or disability issues that are affecting attendance?

Many employment agreements explicitly outline that the employer may request the employee attends a medical assessment with a GP or other health professional for an opinion about their health status, whether they are fit to undertake the role they are in, and any health or disability adjustments that could be made to the role to enable better success in the role. Don’t be afraid to take this route, as it may give you valuable insights and shows you are doing all you can as a fair and reasonable employer to support your employee. Just don’t forget to seek consent from your employee to the assessment and to you being able to see the report or letter from the practitioner.

What would a fair and reasonable employer do in this situation?

If you have taken supportive actions and provided warnings about attendance, but you’ve reached the end of the road and can’t sustain the absence any longer, you should consider alternative options before you terminate. Can the employee be moved to a different role where their absence does not have such an impact on the operations or a role that is better suited to them? Could their hours of work be reduced, by mutual agreement?

A final note – beware of disabilities in the workplace and ensure that you are not opening yourself up to any legal claims. Whatever action you take, follow a fair process and link any decisions you make about the person’s ability to do the job to objective role-related and operational requirements, and medical information or opinions sought. If you go against a recommendation provided by a health professional, make sure you have robust rationale for doing so.

If you would like to discuss how we may be able to support you with managing intermittent and long-term sickness absence, call Safe Business Solutions Ltd on freephone 0508 424 723 or email info@safebusiness.co.nz.