Expert advice

When does feeling unwell tip over into being too sick to work?

There are degrees of sickness and not all of them mean nurses are unfit for any work at all
woman sits at her desk, looking at her phone and blowing her nose

There are degrees of sickness and not all of them mean nurses are unfit for any work at all

Picture: iStock

'Sickness', or 'being unfit for work' are not precise terms. What one person may feel makes them unfit for work may not be a problem for someone else.

Some people would happily go to work with a cold, for example. Others may feel they should not do so for fear of spreading the virus among colleagues and causing levels of sickness to rise.

Questions to ask yourself before you go off sick

In the first instance, it is for you to decide if you are fit for work or not. But before taking sick leave, there are a number of questions you should ask yourself to determine if you are sick or not, including:

  • Are you fit for all your normal duties?
  • Are you fit to undertake any of your normal duties?
  • Do you have an illness that you could transmit to someone else?
  • Will your recovery take longer if you are at work rather than at home?

Are you able to agree alternative working arrangements?

Your answers to these and other questions will determine whether you need to take time off from work. Could you ask your employer if you could work from home, or undertake a reduced role for a while?

‘What used to be termed “sick” are now called “fit notes ” and perform a wider role than the sick note used to do’

Obviously not everyone can work from home or undertake a reduced role, in which case it will be a decision between going to work and taking time off.

Period of sickness absence when self-certification applies

If you decide you are unfit for work, you need to inform your employer of this decision. There is no need to provide a medical certificate from your GP for a period of seven days or less, but it is important to note this is seven calendar days, not seven working days, so it includes weekends and bank holidays.

Where you are off work for seven days or less, you are legally entitled to certify your own sick leave and your employer should have a form that you can complete on your return to work.

If you are off on sick leave for a period longer than seven days, you need to obtain a certificate from your GP or other medical practitioner, stating that you are unfit for work.

Fitness for some of your duties

What used to be termed ‘sick notes’ are now called ‘fit notes’ and perform a wider role than the sick note used to do. Unlike sick notes, fit notes are no longer a blanket statement that you are unfit to undertake any work. 

They can say you are unfit for work but can also state which elements of your role you may be able to undertake. For example, a fit note for a ward-based nurse may say the individual is unable to perform any physically demanding work including lifting, but may indicate fitness to perform administrative duties.

So, are you sick, fit for reduced duties, fit to work from home or fit for all your work?

Marc Cornock is a qualified nurse, academic lawyer and senior lecturer at the Open University. He gives his views in a personal capacity only and they do not necessarily reflect those of the RCN or RCNi