What you need to know about contacting staff who are ill

Most employers are wary of calling or visiting staff who are absent from work, but often it can benefit both parties. David Wright explains the options...

A therapist phoning in sick just before the start of the working day is a familiar nightmare for salon owners. Clients are often reluctant to accept an alternative employee. Often they will cancel and try to rebook but sometimes bookings are lost. How long will the employee be off work? When should I make a new booking? These are obvious questions but they’re difficult to answer.

An employee can phone in sick at any time; they don’t need a medical certificate for the first seven days. Even then, a GP can only give an indication of how long they think the employee might be unfit for work, and they seem to advise in multiples of weeks.

What you can do
Employers are often wary of ringing staff at home, especially if they have a sick note, but there is no legal reason not to make contact. In fact, evidence suggests that keeping in touch is a key factor in helping employees to return to work after sickness.

Many employers believe they cannot visit a sick employee at home, especially when they are off with a complaint such as stress. Legally you can, but tread carefully. Any conversations should relate to their health and be positive. It is pointless trying to bully the employee into committing to a return date.

Most absences are for minor illnesses, so you could ask staff to keep in touch and give an indication of how long they might be off. There’s nothing wrong with contacting them a few days later for a progress report. Even in sensitive cases such as stress or depression, while the employee may have no idea when they will return, they might benefit from a supportive call. You could suggest a meeting in a neutral place if the employee is uncomfortable coming to the salon. If they specifically ask not to be telephoned at home though, you should respect that.

Reasons to keep in touch
Many employees have little idea of their rights, so communicating can be beneficial. For example, after day three the employee becomes eligible for statutory sick pay so you might call to confirm what monies will be received and remind them that after day seven a medical certificate is required. With the recently introduced fit notes, a GP might indicate circumstances under which the employee can return early, such as shorter hours initially, and this would need discussing with the employee.

A separate area is maternity. An employee can now work up to 10 keep-in-touch days while on maternity leave, the idea being that they are more likely to return to work afterwards if they do so. You might call towards the end of the nine-month statutory maternity pay period and remind the employee that eight weeks’ notice is required if she intends requesting flexible hours.

Employee relations
It’s common for staff facing disciplinary allegations to say they’re sick. You might need to cancel or postpone the initial date but wouldn’t be expected to wait indefinitely. Consider asking them to brief a representative, send a written response or liaise with their GP to see if attending the disciplinary process would impact their health. Every situation is different and you should obtain advice. Similarly, if an employee had registered a grievance, that wouldn’t automatically stop because they were unfit to work.

If a therapist has had a request for holiday declined then goes sick, it’s reasonable, if you can’t make contact by telephone, to visit their home. The fact the employee apparently isn’t at home but is unfit for work would be useful evidence if you decided there was a disciplinary issue.

Contact during absence needs to be professionally managed. A paragraph in your workplace rules highlighting the positive reasons why you might make contact during absence is a good start. Discussing the issue at staff meetings is another possible way of bringing it into the open. But for commercial reasons alone, you cannot simply sit and wait on a daily or weekly basis to see if an employee reports back to work.

David Wright is a consultant in all aspects of employment practice and law. He is the main employment law consultant for Habia and provides a personalised support service for UK salons.