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Sick leave can be a tricky area for managers to navigate. But there are some guidelines for dealing with staff who you think are taking too much time off.

Sick and carer’s leave is designed to cover a range of situations that may require an employee to take time off work. Its purpose can be interpreted differently which can lead to tricky situations for managers to navigate.
Some Australian workers think sick leave is an entitlement that’s there to be used for whatever purpose, while others wouldn’t dream of taking a sick day unless they were really unwell. Every manager has their own view on when a staff member should and shouldn’t take time off.

Employee’s Right to Sick Leave

In Australia, full and part-time employees (not casuals) are entitled to a minimum of ten days paid personal/carer’s leave per year. Part-time employees earn pro-rata (proportionally reduced) sick leave. Any unused sick leave carries over and may be used in future years.

The leave may be used when:

  • The employee is unfit for work due to personal illness or injury;
  • The employee is caring for a member of their immediate family; or
  • A member of their household requires care.

All employees (full-time, part-time and casual) are also entitled to another two days unpaid leave whenever they need to look after sick family members.

Sick and carer’s leave is a basic workplace right and includes staff who may be stressed or have an illness. Employees need to provide written evidence of illness to their employer such as a medical certificate.

What is Too Much Sick Leave?

It is illegal to sack an employee because they’re injured or sick for up to three months if they have a medical certificate. However, if an employee is away for more than three months in a year and uses a combination of sick and unpaid leave, the employer is entitled to dismiss them.

If a manager feels an employee is taking unnecessary sick leave, it’s often best to have an informal chat with the employee rather than make a veiled threat about returning to their job. A compassionate attitude will usually achieve a better outcome. Managers should show concern for the employee (or family member’s) health and ask how they’re feeling and if there’s anything they can do to help. The employee can decide how they wish to answer.

How to Handle a Return to Work

An employee is not required to share details of their injury or illness with their employer. However, an employer can ask an employee how they can support their return to work. There are measures an employer can take to help a worker feel supported in returning to work after a long absence. In fact, employers are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act to help employees continue to work including:

  • Reduced or flexible working hours.
  • Opportunity to work from home if possible.
  • Making changes to the workstation.
  • Allowing more breaks.
  • Providing aids and supports such as headsets.

Long absences from work can cause an employee to feel anxious about their return. Employers and managers should advise employees about the availability of the Employee Assistance Program to discuss any anxiety they may be feeling.

Some organisations have a Return to Work program supported by third party organisations like Altius Group. A professional therapist can analyse a returning worker’s tasks and their workstation to provide recommendations for making the transition easier. The professional therapist may recommend aids and supports to help with an injury or recommend a gradual increase in hours to ensure the employee doesn’t suffer a set-back in their recovery. Having the support of an outsider can assist them to return to work and continue with work every day.

Employers (including any line managers and HR) can support employees by offering reassurances that if they return to work, they will be supported by:

  • Not being judged for poor performance during recovery;
  • Having their workload reduced; and
  • Speaking to colleagues before the employee’s return to ask for their assistance.

Know Your Employee

Every employee and their sick leave requirements are different. Even if you believe that an employee is taking too much paid or unpaid sick leave, you must allow them to use their entitlement. By keeping in touch with employees on a regular basis, offering them support and professional assistance, as well as employee assistance and return to work programs, you may be able to achieve the best outcome of an earlier return to work.

If you have any queries about handling excessive sick leave or would like to offer staff a professional Employee Assistance Program and return to work advice, contact Altius Group on 1800 258 487 or contact us online.