Combating the Effects of Sick Leave in the Workplace

It is that time of year again, when sick leave may impact staff attendance and in turn, impact productivity, reducing staff morale and costing your company money. The key to combating the effects of sick leave in the workplace, is to understand what the sick leave entitlement covers, and have policies in place to manage sick leave.

What Constitutes as “Sick Leave”?

Sick leave can be defined as the absence from work due to illness or injury i.e. your employee would be entitled to paid sick leave if he/she is too ill / injured to be at work. A common question that we are asked is whether or not someone is entitled to sick leave if he/she is attending clinic / doctors’ appointments. Strictly speaking, the answer would be no, but our advice is always to consider the human element and individual circumstances, before applying hard and fast rules.
 
In accordance with the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, employees who work five days a week are entitled to 30 days of paid sick leave in a 36-month period. What employers often forget is that during the first six months of employment, employees are only entitled to one day’s paid sick leave for every 26 days worked i.e. roughly five days in their first six months.
 
If the sick leave entitlement has been exhausted before the end of the sick leave cycle, the employee can take unpaid leave, unless there is an agreement to pay additional sick leave or have the leave deducted from annual leave. On the other hand, unused sick leave days are not paid out or carried over to the new cycle.

Requesting Medical Certificates

A medical certificate can be requested if an employee is absent for more than two consecutive days. If an employee is absent on a Friday and a Monday, this is not considered two consecutive days. Unless your sick leave policy specifically states that you require a medical certificate for absenteeism on Fridays and/or Mondays, you cannot request one.

Employees also know how to play the system, so they may take the odd mid-week “duvet-day” without the need to produce a medical certificate. This form of sick leave abuse is quite common in the workplace and often results in unnecessary repercussions for management and fellow staff members, who must absorb the workload of the absent employee. To get around this, you may also request a medical certificate if your employee is off sick more than twice in an eight-week rolling period.

The Validity of Medical Certificates

All medical certificates must be issued and signed by a medical practitioner who is registered with a statutory professional council, such as the Health Professionals Council or South Africa (HPCSA). To protect an individual’s right to privacy and to avoid discrimination or victimisation, a medical certificate does not have to state the full extent of the employee’s cause for absence. However, nothing prohibits employers from investigating the validity of medical certificates by contacting the medical practitioner.
 
Initiating a conversation with the employee around the reason for their absenteeism is recommended and may uncover chronic-illnesses or personal problems, that have impacted the employee’s ability to be present at work. These conversations may also promote a more open environment, where employees feel comfortable to discuss their wellbeing with their managers. Although the employee may be nervous to discuss issues such as these with management, it should be encouraged, as it may make it easier to deal with any chronic absenteeism in the long run.

In Conclusion

To curb unnecessary absenteeism, make sure that your company has a proper leave policy in place, clearly stating what is expected of employees when they are ill and the implications of non-compliance. It is recommended that sick leave is closely monitored, in order to identify and address when patterns become evident. Appropriate action, whether being that of an incapacity investigation or taking disciplinary action, should always be taken and conducted within the stipulations laid down by applicable legislation.