March 9, 2018

What to do when an employee keeps calling in sick

When an employee keeps calling in sick it can have a real impact on your business’s productivity and therefore your bottom line. So what can you do to manage chronic absenteeism in your workplace?

An employee keeps calling in sick and it’s impacting your business. Worse still, you suspect they’re potentially faking it. But what can you do?

The answer is, quite a lot. And because we get asked this question so frequently, we’ve put together this guide to seven things all employers should be doing when it comes to managing sick leave.

1. Look for the early signs

Interestingly, research shows that employees who are chronic takers of sick leave will usually show their true colours within the first couple of months of starting a job. So, if a new employee starts taking ad hoc days of leave and there appears to be no reason for it, address the issue and set expectations while they’re still in their probation period and you will find you have more freedom to act if things don’t improve.

2. Be on top of the law

Legally, an employee can take paid sick leave when they genuinely cannot work due to a personal illness or injury. They can also take time off to look after a sick family or household member (known as carer’s leave). Typically, sick leave doesn’t include routine check-ups and medical appointments.

The law also says that an employee can take as much paid sick or carer’s leave as they have accumulated. But they need to let you know they’re not coming in as soon as possible after they’re sick, and give enough evidence to prove to a “reasonable person” that they are genuinely unable to work. They also need to tell you how long they expect to be off work.

So make sure your managers and your employees know their rights and obligations at both ends.

3. Have a clear policy in place

While the Fair Work Act might set out an employee’s general entitlements and obligations, every workplace should have its own more detailed sick leave policy, too. That’s your foundation: what you and your managers can point to as your yardstick for what’s acceptable and what’s not, as well as what protocols and procedures your employees need to follow when they’re away from the office.

Your policy should include:


  • How an employee must inform you they’re sick: should they make a phone call? If so, who do they need to call? Is it acceptable for them to email or text?
  • What information they need to provide: as a minimum, they should give you enough information to satisfy you that they are unwell, and tell you when they expect to be back at work. They should also let you know of any urgent work or deadlines on their plate, so that you can ensure this is covered
  • What their options are if they’ve run out of sick leave, and what other support you can provide (e.g. access to an employee assistance program)
  • What they need to do when they return to work; including applying for leave and providing any required documentation


When you have your policy ready, make sure everyone has access to it – put it up on your intranet for all to see. Or, if you don’t have one, email or give a copy to everyone in your workplace and make sure they understand it.


4. Train your managers

It’s one thing to have a policy, it’s another to have managers who are comfortable with and capable of enforcing it. Pulling up an employee you suspect is taking advantage of your sick leave policy is no easy feat. But this is a difficult conversation that is often best received from the direct or line manager who is closest to them in the first instance. So you need to get your managers trained up in how to have difficult conversations.

A word of caution – make sure your managers adhere to your sick leave policy too. If they’re not holding up the policy, it’s not going to go down too well if they are then pulling up the team.


5. Work out what’s going on

When someone does repeatedly call in sick, you should try to get to the bottom of what’s happening as soon as possible, before the situation escalates.

As soon as they’re back at work, have a conversation with them. Make sure they’re ok to be back at work, mention that you’ve noticed a bit of a pattern in their leave, and ask if there’s anything else going on. The purpose of this conversation is for you to gain a better understanding of the impact their absence is having on their ability to do their job. Keep your chat work related and focus on assisting them to get back up to speed so they can deliver on their responsibilities.

Whilst an employee is under no obligation to disclose anything personal to you, it may be relevant to suggest external support if you feel as though they might need it.


6. Ask for proof

Make sure that evidence requirements are part of your workplace policy and be firm but fair: if an employee can’t produce sufficient evidence to access their sick leave (e.g. a medical certificate or a stat dec), give them the option to take annual leave rather than leave without pay.

Whilst the employee doesn’t have to disclose the specific details of any illness, you can ask for proof of unfitness for work. And, contrary to popular belief, you can ask for this when an employee has been away for only one day. For example, you may demand that someone who has been a chronic sick leave taker must produce a medical certificate for each day they are absent.

And remember, under the legislation, elective surgery and pre-arranged medical appointments aren’t covered by sick leave, so you may want to make this clear in your workplace policy.

7. Ask for an independent examination

 While there are no strict rules on what type of evidence needs to be given, a reasonable person needs to be convinced that the employee was genuinely entitled to the sick or carer’s leave. And because they’re bound to keep patient confidentiality, most doctors will write little more than ‘unfit for work’ on any medical certificate.

In the situation of an ongoing issue or an unexplained shift, an Independent Medical Examination (IME) may be prudent. You will give the doctor information about the requirements of the employee’s role, and will have the opportunity to ask the doctor specific questions about the employee’s ability to do particular tasks.

The completed IME will give you certainty about the work they are capable of competing in the interim, what adjustments can be made; and when they will be able to return to their regular duties.


Want more?

When it comes to managing absences it’s always worth remembering that no two workplaces and no two employees are the same. Generally, if your employees and managers feel comfortable having open and honest conversations with each other, the less likely these situations will become unmanageable. So if you’re not sure about the best plan of attack, want to polish up your policies or even train your managers on the importance of these conversations, get in touch.

say hi to our author

Merilyn founded Catalina Consultants in 2012 on the belief that all organisations, regardless of size, should have access to top quality bespoke HR services. She enjoys working closely with her clients and believes that the best results are built on relationships of rapport, trust and authenticity. Growing up, Merilyn had her sight set on stardom and dreamed of becoming an actor. She also sang and played the piano, but ended up studying accounting and HR. Whilst she hasn’t won her Grammy just yet, she still loves a good karaoke night. Merilyn loves to travel with her family, with South Africa being one of her most memorable destinations.

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