Sickness reviews and your rights: don’t be alarmed if you’re asked to explain time off

Advice on nurses’ rights when employers trigger investigations into sickness absence 

Advice on nurses’ rights when employers trigger investigations into sickness absence

Nurses too often feel guilty for taking time off, but going to work when sick could put
patients at risk  Picture: iStock

Unfortunately, nursing staff – both inside and outside the NHS – have more to grapple with than just focusing on their recovery when they have been ill.

Sickness absence policies can be problematic too, making life difficult for those who have time off work.

So it is vital for nursing staff to know their rights when it comes to sickness absence. Unscrupulous employers might like to take advantage of perceived ‘grey areas’, but the truth is that rights in relation to sickness absence are clear.

When the best place for you is at home and not with patients 

For nursing staff, the first thing to remember is if you are unwell and feel unable to work, do not go to work. Far too many members of the nursing team go to work when they really shouldn’t.

When working directly with patients, many of whom will be vulnerable and susceptible to infection, it is important that nursing staff take sick leave and inform their manager when deciding to do so.

It’s easy to feel guilty if you think you are letting colleagues down, especially when you know how short-staffed your workplace is, but your first duty must be to ensure patients are protected.

‘If you are told by your employer further absences may lead to disciplinary action, this doesn’t mean they are in the right – in fact, it may mean they are acting unreasonably’

The latest RCN Employment Survey showed that almost half of members across the UK turned up for work up to five times in 2019 despite feeling too ill to do so. Shockingly, half also said workplace policies made them feel under pressure to attend.

For those who do take sick leave, stress, viruses, colds, flu and musculoskeletal problems are the biggest causes – although a quarter of RCN members who took time off in 2019 cited mental health problems as the reason, showing once again it is not just physical issues that affect people at work.

The prospect of a sickness review can be intimidating – but it shouldn’t be

Sickness reviews are one of the main issues that prompt our members to call the RCN contact centre. These might sound a bit like being dragged to the headteacher’s office, but the reality is different.

If your illness or injury causes you to be off work for a week or more, or you have had repeated periods off work, then it is likely this will trigger a stage one sickness meeting. There isn’t any need to be worried about this, because it is a chance for you to discuss any problems you may be having. 

Although at this stage you are not entitled to representation by the RCN (or your union), your employer may allow it anyway. If not, you can take a colleague with you.

You should not feel alone in the process – there are people who can support you  Picture: iStock

When it is time to seek expert employment rights advice

Should your absence go on longer and you have more periods of sickness while on stage one, you may then trigger stage two. Should this happen the first thing to do, if you’re a member, is to call the RCN. At this point, your employer may decide to involve its human resources department and occupational health. Before going into any sickness meeting, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with your employer’s sickness policy.

You may notice that throughout the sickness absence process employers use a trigger points system – which can sound scary – to determine what they consider to be a ‘problematic absence’. In other words, if an employee is taking extended periods off sick or a number of shorter-term absences.

If you are told by your employer that further absences may lead to disciplinary action, this doesn’t mean they are in the right. In fact, it may mean they are acting unreasonably. You should remind them of the fact that the NMC code requires you to ensure your own health and fitness so as not to compromise patient safety.

Beware rushing to resign if the process escalates

The final stage of the sickness absences process is stage three/four. If you are a union member, you can take a representative with you. This is even more important at this stage because it is the part of the process where an employer has all options available to them, which could include dismissal, ill-health retirement or redeployment. 

Some on long-term sick leave make the mistake of resigning before seeking the RCN's advice, meaning they sometimes miss out on notice pay, or other benefits such as ill-health retirement payments.

Taking time off work when you are unwell is not a crime, and your employer should support you through the process, whether you are returning to work or taking a different route. As always, the RCN will be by members' side.

Josephine Brady is RCN associate director of employment relations

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