It’s that time of year again – cold and flu season. Which means employers need to be aware of some of the key issues surrounding effectively managing sick leave during this tricky time of the year, particularly in the current COVID-19 climate.

The Fair Work Act states that sick leave or personal/carer’s leave is a paid entitlement that allows full-time employees to 10 days per year, or pro-rata for part-time workers. It is accrued progressively throughout the year, is not payable on termination of employment, and any leave not taken can be carried over to the next year. Casual employees are not entitled to paid sick leave.

The provisions surrounding sick leave entitlements outline that in order for an employee to access sick leave, they are required to:

Give notice that they will be taking sick leave as soon as possible and let the employer know the expected period of time that they will be absent.

If required, provide reasonable evidence that they were unable to attend work due to illness or injury, such as a medical certificate.

On the other hand, having sick employees at work is a work health and safety risk and an employer is entitled to issue specific directions such as ordering a sick employee to go home under those same sick leave provisions.

For employers, leaning on the sick leave provisions of the FW Act and the authority to issue directions is an effective way to manage both employees who take ‘sickies’ and employees who attend work when unwell.

The challenge with employees who take ‘sickies’

A ‘sickie’ is when an employee misuses their sick leave entitlement for any purpose other than being ill or injured or caring for someone who is. Employees who are notorious for taking ‘sickies’ will often take advantage of the cold and flu season, or tack on sick days to the end of weekends or public holidays for an extra-long break.

Aside from the obvious dishonesty, this kind of behaviour often leads to a range of negative outcomes such as:

Negative leave balances – Employees who take ‘sickies’ can use up their paid leave entitlements and end up having to take unpaid leave, which may result in financial distress for the employee.

Drop in team morale – Hard working employees who consistently show up to work often feel resentment towards team mates who take ‘sickies’.

Reduced productivity – Fewer employees at the workplace generally means less work is able to be accomplished.

The challenge with employees who come to work sick

Most people have soldiered on at work through illness at one stage or another, but some employees take it to the next level by refusing to take sick leave when it’s clear they should be at home resting. This is called presenteeism and despite good intentions, employees who do this can actually cause more harm than good in the workplace such as:

Spreading illness to team mates and causing others to get sick too.

Creating a negative work environment that implies that those who do take sick leave are weak or uncommitted leading to reduced team morale.

Reduced productivity as the quality of work produced by an employee who is sick is often sub-par because they are not well, resulting in work having to be re-done or taking longer than usual.

What can employers do?

As the past couple of years have shown, it is vitally important for employers to minimise the risk to the health and safety of employees when in the workplace, including reducing exposure to sickness as much as possible. With cold and flu season in full swing, we discuss important strategies that employers should consider in order to reduce sickness in the workplace, and minimise disruption to business operations.

Set expectations

Develop or review the existing policy on sick leave, ensuring it clearly sets out the procedures for taking sick leave and employer expectations surrounding this. This should include how to apply for sick leave and the circumstances when evidence, such as a doctor’s certificate, may be required.

To deter workers from taking ‘sickies’, the policy might include that evidence can be requested on any occasion but will always be required when sick days are taken directly before or after weekends or public holidays.

To combat unwell employees from attending work, the policy might state that in the interests of workplace health and safety, an employer may require an employee to leave work and take sick leave if the employer reasonably believes the employee poses a risk to the health of others.

Communicate expectations

Send a reminder to employees about sick leave including a copy of the policy before cold and flu season hits, and meet with workers to discuss employee obligations and the expectations of the business when it comes to taking sick leave.

Encourage employees to act responsibly by looking after themselves and taking a proactive approach to building up their immune system.

Additionally, many businesses now support employees to receive the flu vaccine via onsite vaccine clinics to encourage uptake amongst workers. During the month of June, WA residents can receive the flu vaccine for free at participating pharmacies and GP’s through Roll Up for WA – click here for more details.

Send employees who are unwell home

Employers have a responsibility to provide a healthy and safe workplace for all employees and workers who come to work when unwell can make the workplace unhealthy. If an employer believes that a team member’s illness poses a risk to the health of other employees, such as a contagious cold or flu, the employer is then able send the employee home on the basis that they are unfit to work safely and without risk to the health of others in the workplace.

Understand workplace laws surrounding sick leave

The FW Act sets out the requirements that an employee must comply with in order to access sick leave entitlement. Similarly, an employer has the authority to direct an employee in the conduct of their work, including to leave the workplace if they pose a health and safety risk.

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