Let’s face it, we all need personal leave (sick and carers) at one point or another for different reasons and in some instances, an employer might ask for evidence that attests to the leave required being due to illness, injury or care for immediate family or a household member. In most cases, this evidence comes in the form of a medical certificate that an employee supplies upon their return to work, stating that they were unfit for regular duties. For best practice purposes, an employer should ideally have a process in place outlining who to notify, how to notify them, and how much notice is reasonably required if in a shift/rostering environment.
Whilst we won’t explore the potential reasons for personal leave being utilized, we will however highlight what wellbeing expert Terry Robson states, ‘excessive and prolonged work pressure is leading to burnout and operating in an “always-on” culture which has been worsened by technology and mobile devices which have eroded the boundaries between work and personal life. This could very well be some of the factors influencing the uptake of sick leave and if you are after solutions on how to tackle burnout, refer to our previous article Burnout on the rise and productivity in jeopardy.
In order to illustrate the impact of personal leave, we refer to the Absence Management and Wellbeing Survey Report 2019, published by the Direct Health Solutions which estimated direct costs associated with absenteeism had increased from $3,608 per employee per annum in 2017 to $4,025 by 2019. The survey also found that absenteeism had increased by 1.5 days to 11.2 days per employee per annum. We are under no illusion that the direct cost of absenteeism has increased since then, but it provides an idea of the magnitude of associated costs with personal leave.
With the above in mind, it becomes quickly apparent why it is in the best interests of employers to focus on holistic wellbeing initiatives in order to improve the health of their employees. If you need some tips on how to improve your approach to employee wellbeing, see our previous article on The Evolution of Employee Wellbeing. Not only will well-established and creative initiatives improve engagement and productivity, but they will also reduce the cost of sick leave for an organisation.
Solutions to absence management
It is considered best practice for employers to have a strategy on how to manage absences from work and a method to track absences for patterns and frequencies. According to the Direct Health Solutions survey, the most common and effective practices for managing absence were:
1. Return to work interviews (58%);
2. Absence management training for managers (45%); and
3. A centralized absence reporting system for absence reporting (49%).
Worth noting that they also reported that 68% of respondents believe the requirement of a medical certificate for every absence is effective. Therefore, it is crucial to understand when you can and should ask for a medical certificate.
Requesting a medical certificate
Duty of care and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) regulations dictate that employers need to provide a safe workplace for employees and medical information relating to an absence from work may well assist meet that obligation that employers bear. Furthermore, a medical certificate can provide valuable information that can aid a safe and sustainable return to work whilst mitigating the risk of aggravating an illness or injury. Adjustments to work environments might be required to reasonably accommodate an employee and a medical certificate is a good starting point to gather valuable information. It would be good practice to request a medical certificate for injuries, and illnesses resulting in long periods of absence from work or regular absences.
Contrary to the popular belief that an employee needs to be away from work for two (2) consecutive days or more before an employer can request a medical certificate; employers can ask an employee to provide evidence for one (1) day or less off work. Failure to comply with that request may result in not being entitled to be paid for sick or carer’s leave. If in doubt, refer to the applicable modern award or registered agreement for clarity on when evidence needs to be provided and what type of evidence can be produced. Acceptable types of evidence include medical certificates or statutory declarations. The criteria for the type of evidence that needs to be produced are not strict and refer to needing to convince a reasonable person that the employee was genuinely entitled to the sick or carer’s leave.
Medical appointments and elective procedures
Pre-arranged medical appointments or elective medical procedures are covered by sick leave when an employee cannot work due to illness or injury. However, individual circumstances need to be assessed prior to making a determination. Therefore, an employer can request evidence from an employee attesting that they are not fit for regular duties. This information will help ascertain what type of leave or entitlement is best suited to the circumstances.
Suspicion about validity
There are times when an employer might be suspicious about the validity or authenticity of a medical certificate. It is not uncommon for employers to have concerns that the employee is not genuinely sick and still accessing the sick leave entitlement. Some employers even resort to requesting a medical certificate for every absence in an effort to curtail that very same issue.
However, sick leave not only covers the common cold or the flu but also extends to mental health. Even if an employer came across a social media post of an employee at the beach on a hot day after having called in sick, it is not an easy situation to navigate or effectively manage. Could the employee argue they needed the day off as self-care for their mental health? What if the leave is supported by a medical certificate issued by a medical practitioner stating they are unfit for regular duties? Would it give you grounds to take drastic action such as providing notice of termination to an employee? An employer’s approach needs to be reasonable and not deemed harsh, so ask yourself the question before acting.
In this instance, a return-to-work interview might prove more suitable to uncover the underlying reason for the absence from work. A more effective strategy would be to utilize a combination of a return-to-work interview, a centralized absence reporting system, and requesting a medical certificate. It would also be worth considering having a policy for mental health days and implementing some well-being initiatives to best support the employees. Notwithstanding the above, each situation is different and there might be grounds for further action for an employer.
Before proceeding with any disciplinary action, it would be advisable to consult with an HR Consultant in order to assess the circumstances surrounding the leave in question. This is a complex situation that can benefit from the expertise and a decision to proceed with a notice of termination to an employee, may result in a Fair Work claim. There may be grounds for legitimate disciplinary action, but each case needs to be carefully assessed on merit.
Implementing an effective absence management strategy is an important step that every organization should implement in order to effectively manage the associated cost of personal leave and to also better gauge whether their workforce needs an improved wellbeing program to support them. Do away with any inbuilt reliance on solely requesting a medical certificate and instead implement some of the other proven practices for managing absences.
At HR Expertise, our HR Consultants can assist you with absence management, wellbeing initiatives, and disciplinary action if needed. So, if you need reliable HR Consulting in Melbourne and across Australia, don’t forget to contact HR Expertise. We would love to work with you.