The National Insurance Act of 1911 introduced sickness pay to British workers for the first time under the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith. More than one hundred years later, workers in Britain are still benefiting from the security of receiving sickness pay when they are most vulnerable.
Today, workers can be off work for up to seven consecutive days before they are required to visit their GP to get a doctor’s note as a means of proving their illness to the employer (once called a sick note and now known as a ‘fit note’). Instead, they may be required to ‘self-certify’ their absence to their employer if they are off work for less than seven days.
What is self-certification?
When workers are off sick they need to inform their employer immediately, explaining why they are missing work and when they are likely to return. If they return within seven days (including days that aren’t normally worked, such as weekends or bank holidays) they may be asked by the employer to complete a self-certification form. This is a formal process for the employee to confirm their absence was due to illness and for the employer to record and monitor workers’ attendance and provide relevant support.
It is common for employers to provide their own version of the self-certification form (an example can be found at Gov.uk), but it will generally include questions about:
- the reason for the absence including details about the illness or injury;
- the dates when the illness or injury started and ended;
- whether the illness or injury was due to an accident or conditions at work.
Longer periods of absence
For longer periods of illness (beyond seven days) a fit note may be required from a GP or the hospital doctor as evidence that the incapacity for work is ongoing. The fit note will state whether a person is ‘not fit to work’ (in which case the person is likely to be absent for further period of time) or whether the person ‘may be fit for work taking into account the following advice’. This ‘advice’ may suggest changes in working hours, the type of work undertaken or any other suggested adjustments.
If an employee is not fit for work, or may be fit for work but the employer and employee are not able to agree any suitable changes, their fit note should be used as evidence for sick pay procedures.
If the sickness continues into holiday time, the lost days will usually be treated as sick days and the holidays can be kept and used at a later date. While on extended sick leave, holiday entitlement is still accrued and can be kept over to the following year. Holidays can also be taken, where these have been booked, and this should be agreed between the employer and employee.
Sick pay entitlement
Employees who are sick for more than four consecutive days may be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or may qualify for their company’s occupational sick pay schemes. Guidance about SSP rates and entitlement criteria can be found on Gov.UK. These payments are made in the same way as wages, with tax and national insurance deducted.
Advice to staff
It is important that employees are clear about their company’s sickness policy and the terms of their employment contact when they fall ill.
Employees should follow company procedures by, for example:
- reporting their sickness quickly;
- completing a self-certification form if one is required;
- remaining in contact with managers;
- being clear and honest about when they expect to return to work.
For further advice on self-certification and other work-related health issues, view the Fit for Work website or call the free Fit for Work advice line (0800 032 6235 – English, 0800 032 6233 – Cymraeg). There is a separate service running in Scotland – http://fitforworkscotland.scot/ (0800 019 2211).
Advice to employers
Sickness absence is a major problem for organisations in the UK, accounting for an estimated 139 million lost working days a year and its associated disruption and increased costs. Minor, short-term illnesses such as coughs and colds account for 31 million lost days a year. Long-term sickness absence (of four weeks or more) affects on average 1.8 million employees in the UK over 12 months.
Employers have a legal responsibility to protect the health and wellbeing of their workforce but taking positive steps to reduce sickness among staff makes financial sense too:
- The monitoring and analysis of sickness among staff may help to identify areas of work that may be contributing to sickness rates, such as deadlines causing stress or production lines increasing the likelihood of back problems among workers.
- A clear sickness absence policy (i.e. process of how/when to report absence etc.), keeping in touch with absent staff and considering training managers to deal with absence.
- Return to work interviews are increasingly seen as a means of helping workers readjust to the workplace after a period of sickness and ensuring that managers are aware of any ongoing difficulties.
- Treating staff well seen as a way of improving staff morale and staff retention.
For more information about reducing staff sickness, visit the Fit for Work website at fitforwork.org/employer or call the Fit for Work helpline on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Cymraeg). Those in Scotland can call 0800 019 2211.