Your rights: Illness and injury at work

We all think we know our rights when it comes to our jobs and the companies we work for, but how many of us really know what we should do if we become ill or injured for the long-term? Employment laws have been put in place to protect workers and stop companies from engaging in activities that disadvantage workers or put them in harm’s way.

Workers’ rights in regards to health are best approached from two angles; long-term and short-term conditions. We’ll be taking a closer look at what you should do in either of these situations and what you should expect from your employer.

What are your rights if you become ill or injured short-term?

Becoming ill whilst working can mean anything from a stomach bug to a long-term illness like cancer, and each has their own set of guidance for you and your employer. Short-term illness requires far less intervention for an employer as long as there are not repeated absences.

Employee

A short-term injury or illness is considered to be about a week but your contract of employment might say they internally consider it to be shorter. In most cases of short-term illnesses, you can self-diagnose, at most, to the end of the first week of illness. This still means you follow company procedure and contact your manager, explain the illness and let them know when you’ll be back in, but you won’t necessarily have to show proof of what was wrong. Policy varies from company to company and too many bouts of short-term illness could put your job in jeopardy. If you have a recurring issue, you should get it properly diagnosed so your employer is aware and you’re not penalised for it. You’ll probably be asked for proof of recurring illness if you have four or more short periods off sick as this would take you over the national average of 4.3 sick days a year.

Employer

As an employer, you obviously want as little time lost to illness as possible. As such, you can put in systems such as return to work assessments and meetings if there are too many small absences from an employee. You also are within your rights to ask for a medical assessment if your employee has many absences, but you can’t use these as an excuse to treat your employee differently, for example, not offering them shifts you would offer as standard to all other employees.

Another situation to be wary of is if your employee is off short-term because of illness or injury incurred during the course of their work. Due to the minor nature of their condition, it would be unlikely that you’d be looking at an injury at work claim against your business, but including this as a reason to penalise an employee is inviting problems and might push their situation to the point of being claim-worthy.

What are your rights if you become ill or injured long-term?

Employee

Long-term illness or injury, for the first week of absence, follows the same rules that exist around proving short-term conditions. Then, after the first week, you’ll have to provide a fit note from a doctor or certificate from a non-medical professional, such as a chiropractor or therapist.

If their illness is expected to continue for more than a few weeks or it becomes apparent there’s no anticipated end to your condition, you might have to provide a report from your doctor on your condition, or your employer might ask you to see a different medical professional for an assessment. The result of the report will inform your employer of whether you are fit to work or not, and is otherwise confidential but could be accessed if there’s an appeal.

Next up is the most important worry when you become sick – pay. You are entitled to SSP (Statutory Sick Pay) after 4 or more days off work and will be paid it up to 28 weeks. However, your employer has to agree to it so you’ll have to prove ample proof of illness, and if they suspect that you are actually okay to work, they can refuse to approve your SSP. This can happen if your medical assessment says you’re capable of performing your job or if you refuse to be assessed. Employers cannot withhold SSP without good reason and they can’t overrule the findings of a medical professional; if they so they made be challenged on it or taken to an employment tribunal.

Employer

As an employer, having someone sick long-term can seriously affect your business, and your desire might be to simply get rid and hire someone else but this is against the law if you don’t follow the proper procedures. You have to certain, and able to prove, that this person is unable to return to work or that their reduced capabilities mean a suitable role is unavailable within your company. If neither of these is true, you’ll want to organise a phased return to work and an occupational assessment to see if you’ll need to provide any additional support.

If the illness or injury someone is experiencing is possibly down to something that occurred during the course of working for you, you’ll want to investigate any possible failings of health and safety on your part and rectify it immediately. In these sorts of situations, you will want to stick to offering the same SSP and return to work process as anyone else. This is to ensure you aren’t admitting liability through special treatment and opening yourself up to additional problems should there be a claim or investigation.

Additionally, being adamant that you’re not to blame at all and deliberately treating the employee badly will not persuade anyone of your company’s innocence should an investigation show up evidence of your failings.

Work rights are complex and exist, mainly, to protect workers and prevent companies from taking advantage. But these laws also require employees to adhere to certain rules so as not to trap companies in a cycle of paying for absent employees and being unable to hire replacements. Work rights, rather than a battle of the company versus workers, is a balance of each working to help the other even when illness or injury occurs, offering each a safety net in sometimes distressing situations.