Sick Leave

Sick leave doesn't have to be a major cost to your business

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Monday, Mar 11, 2024

It’s a fact of life that sometimes people get sick. Even with taking every precaution, there’s a risk of illness.

When that happens, and an employee needs time off, your business needs to be prepared.

Any loss of resource can mean reduced productivity if you don’t have someone to cover their workload. And you have a lot of legal obligations to ensure your staff can recover comfortably without worrying about their job, or their next paycheck.

In this guide, we explain the rules around sick leave entitlements, the different types of sick leave, and how to manage it. As well as explaining the rules around holiday accrual, and dismissal when an employee is off sick.

What is Sick Leave?

Sick leave is time off from work used by employers when they are unwell, or attending appointments regarding their health.

It’s different from annual leave. Employees are usually unable to provide advanced notice for when they feel unwell, so you need a separate policy for managing sick leave.

Most UK employees are entitled to statutory sick leave and it’s usually paid. To be eligible, the employee must have average weekly earnings of at least £120.

Employees or workers who have worked there for less than three months will get sick leave until the end of the current agreed assignment. For employees, that usually means the only consideration is whether they earn enough. For workers, sick leave is available until the end of their current agreed shifts.

How Many Days of Sick Leave a Year for UK Employees?

The average employee takes 6.9 days of sick leave in the UK each year.

There’s no legal limit to employee’s sick leave entitlement. However, there are rules on how much sick pay they’re entitled to.

If an employee is sick for at least four consecutive days, they are entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP). However, if they are off due to COVID, they are entitled to receive it from day one of their absence.

You must pay qualifying employees at least £96.35 per week. Employees can receive SSP for up to 28 weeks. Your organisation can opt out of SSP and offer your own scheme, contractual sick pay, instead. Payments must be at least equal to SSP.

Learn more about the rules by reading our statutory sick pay guide.

Sick Leave Policy

While an employee can’t plan when they feel unwell, there are things you can do to minimise the disruption to your business.

An absence management policy lets your staff know what’s expected from them, and also:

  • Outlines the process for notifying their line manager.
  • Details contractual sick pay.
  • Explains the consequences of excessive and non-genuine time-off.

In most cases, company policies tell employees to notify their line manager, or office manager as soon as they’re able to.

You can specify the ideal amount of time before their start time that employees should let you know. And the preferred method of contact for an application for sick leave.

A sick leave email should explain:

  • The reason for absence.
  • Estimated time-off needed, if known.
  • Details of any work that needs handling in their absence.
  • Best way to contact them while they’re off sick.

Types of Sick Leave

There are different rules for sickness leave depending on the length of time the employee is absent.

  • Self-certified sick leave: Leave which lasts for less than seven days self-certified. Self certification of sickness is when the employee doesn’t need to provide proof of their sickness, and can confirm the period of illness themselves.

  • Doctor’s letter sick leave: If an employee is ill for more than seven days in a row, they must provide a sick note, or fit note. A sick note is proof of sickness provided by a medical professional.

How to Get a Sick Note

To get a sick note, employees should make an appointment with their doctor.

The note will confirm that you are not fit for work, or whether you “may be fit for work”.

If your doctor says you “may be fit for work”, they can recommend the type of work you may be able to do, and precautions to take. If the employer can’t offer the sort of work they’re fit for, the employee will remain off sick.

Common Sick Leave Excuses

There are many reasons someone might call in sick. So, it’s important that you know the common reasons for time-off requests. They are:

  • Contagious illnesses: As the name suggests, the common cold is a common type of illness. As with other contagious illnesses, like the flu. Some workers will continue to come to work when they have some minor illnesses, this is known as presenteeism and you should attempt to prevent it.

  • Injury: Any injury that leaves an employee less able to complete their work, or in severe pain should be treated as a valid excuse for time-off.

  • Medical appointments: Some employers let staff take sick days to attend doctor’s appointments, rather than requiring them to use their annual leave. This isn’t required, and you don’t have to allow medical appointments in work hours at all. But doing so will help with the employee’s wellbeing, and engagement with your business.

  • Diagnosed medical condition: Many people have chronic medical conditions that impact their day-to-day lives. Sometimes these conditions may flare up and require time off work. The Equality Act 2010 requires you to make “reasonable adjustments” to assist these employees with coming to work, and prevents you from discriminating against them.

In most cases, you can’t deny an employee’s leave request. You must complete a thorough investigation if you suspect that an employee is abusing your sick leave policy.

Persistent non-genuine sick leave is known as absenteeism, and can be a reason for dismissing an employee.

Do you Accrue Holiday on Sick Leave?

Yes, employees continue to build up, or accrue, their statutory holiday entitlement while off work sick.

The government also sets out rules for claiming back annual leave if you’re sick. Any annual leave that isn’t used due to sickness can be carried over into the next leave year.

Pregnancy Sick Leave

Some employees may need more time-off than others, but you can’t discriminate against them for that. This is the case with pregnant employees.

An employee who is pregnant will likely need more time off for appointments and pregnancy-related illness. They have the right to paid time off for pregnancy-related medical appointments, with no requirement to take annual leave, make up the hours, or book outside of work time.

You must record any pregnancy-related sickness separately to other types of leave. This is to ensure absence caused by being pregnant isn’t counted as an absence and potentially used to the employee’s disadvantage.

There are different rules if sickness occurs in the final four weeks of their pregnancy. You can initiate the employee’s maternity leave if they become sick at this time.

Sick Leave and Dismissal

Being absent doesn’t protect employees from dismissal. People absent due to sickness can be dismissed for a number of reasons. But their absence can’t be a part of your reason for dismissing them—except in a limited capacity when referring to long-term sickness.

How Long can you be on Sick Leave before Dismissal?

There’s no set period of time limit when you can make a dismissal. But you need to have a valid reason; and must follow a fair process.

For example, you might need to consider capability dismissal if an employee is on long term sickness leave.

Can you be Made Redundant while on Sick Leave?

An employee can be made redundant while on sick leave. Part of a fair redundancy process includes making sure all employees are considered, including remote workers and those on long term leave.

However, the fact someone is off sick can’t be the reason you select them for redundancy. This could lead to claims of unfair dismissal and discrimination.

If possible, you should try to delay any dismissals until the employee is able to attend a hearing.

Get Help with Absence Management Today with BrightHR

Your employees will get sick and will need time off. It’s unavoidable, and something that you should plan for.

Failure to prepare can leave you with days when your business is unable to complete key duties. And not knowing the laws around sick leave can lead to discrimination and unfair dismissal claims.

Use BrightHR’s absence management software to track attendance, arrange shift cover, and store sick notes digitally, without the need for a scanner. You’ll also get access to our other people management software.

Book a free demo today to see just how easy it is to manage HR with our help. Give us a call on 0800 783 2806.

* Please be aware that this might differ for COVID-19.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sick Leave

Our clients ask loads of questions about sick leave, so we’ve answered some of the most common ones below.

Not found an answer to your question? Bright Lightning gives you the answer to thousands of employment questions in seconds.

How many sick days per year is normal?

The average UK employee is off sick for around six days each year. As this is an average, some of your staff will take less than that, and others may need considerably more.

There’s no legal rule on what’s an acceptable number of sick days, and it’s up to you to keep in mind what you think is too much.

Is it bad to call in sick?

No. Going to work when sick is a type of presenteeism. It can delay recovery, impact the quality of work completed, and risk spreading the illness to other staff.

Your absence management policy should outline the importance of taking time off when someone is unwell, and set out the rules for calling in sick.

How long can you claim sickness benefit?

Eligible employees can claim statutory sick pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks.

You must be off work for at least four days in a row to qualify.

How many days can you self-certify?

Staff can self-certify their sickness for up to seven days.

After that point, they must provide a doctor’s sick note as proof.

Can your employer call you when you are off sick?

There’s no rule that prevents an employer from contacting someone who’s off sick.

However, sick days are needed to protect staff wellbeing and help them recover from illness. So, contacting an employee while they’re off sick can prolong their time-off, or cause them added stress.

Can work contact me when off sick with stress in the UK?

As with any other type of sick leave, there’s no rule that prevents employers from contacting someone off sick with stress.

However, you should consider the reasons for your call. Any workplace stress could be made worse by not giving the employee the space to recover.

Can you be fired for being sick on probation in the UK?

Even though someone is on probation, they’re still protected from unlawful dismissal for sick leave.

You can only dismiss someone for sick leave when it’s a long-term illness that is affecting their ability to complete the job they were hired for.

We can help

Do you need extra support? Well, we’re always available to help. Get in touch on 0800 470 2432

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