August 21, 2018

Contacting An Employee On Sick Leave

As an employer, it is understandable that you may want to contact an employee on sick leave, for various reasons.

However, employers must err on the side of caution when contacting employee on sick leave, especially if they off with work-related stress.

In the Employment Tribunal decision of Private Medicine Intermediaries Ltd v Hodkinson, Miss Hodkinson was off sick due to work-related depression and anxiety.

Miss Hodkinson felt very vulnerable as a result of her situation at work, and therefore she did not feel able to raise a grievance.

Her employer then wrote to her a letter detailing six areas of concern about her performance which they wanted to discuss.

In response, Miss Hodkinson resigned, citing constructive dismissal, stating that the letter was intended to elicit her resignation due to its timing.

While the Tribunal found that the letter was not intended to drive Miss Hodkinson out, her employer knew, or ought to have reasonably known that the letter would upset Miss Hodkinson to the extent that she could not return to work.

Her employer appealed against the decision, and the appeal was subsequently dismissed.

However, despite the decision, in this case, it does not mean that employees cannot be contacted at all while on sick leave.

It's Good Practice To Keep In Contact

It is good practice to keep in touch with an employee on sick leave, but careful attention must be given to the timing and nature of the contact, with consideration given to the reason why the employee is off sick when applicable.

When Can You Contact An Employee On Sick Leave?

There is no definitive answer to this question.

Contacting an employee on sick leave can be considered appropriate absence management. 

In certain circumstances, it may even be beneficial to the employee, so they do not feel isolated or out of the loop.

Employers should use all the information available to them, including the most recent occupational health or medical report to make an informed decision about contacting an employee.

Some considerations:

  • Why do you need to contact the employee?
  • Will contacting them further aggravate their condition?
  • Is it urgent or can it wait until the employee returns from sick leave?
  • Has the employee been open generally to communication during their absence?

What About Mental Health Issues Or Work-Related Illnesses?

A different approach should be taken if the employee is off work due to mental health issues or work-related illness, as was the case with Miss Hodkinson.

As work-related stress is a more sensitive issue, it is imperative that you appropriately contact the employee.

Don't Be Afraid To Ask

It may be worthwhile for you to ask your employee the best way for them to be contacted, whether it be telephone, e-mail, or another method of their choice.

When contacting an employee on sick leave, the three main considerations that you should contemplate are:

  • Tone: make sure you do not come across too unsympathetic or pushy to the employee. It would help if you were sensitive to what you have to say, taking into consideration what illness they have.
  • Content: Do not pester an employee with something trivial while they are off sick, as they may feel unnecessary pressure to return to work sooner than they would like to, or it may make their illness worse.
  • Timing: If you know the employee in question is due to return from sick leave in the immediate future, then perhaps debate if your query can wait until then.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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