How to effectively manage sick employees

Legal expert gives tips on employee leaves, dismissals – and the importance of communication

How to effectively manage sick employees

Dealing with a sick employee is never an easy task for an employer, especially when the illness is serious and long term.

There is an array of devastating illnesses that humans can succumb to such as ovarian cancer.

According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, approximately 1,800 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year and of those diagnosed at a late stage, only 29% survive more than five years.

“When faced with managing an employee who has been diagnosed with a serious illness, empathy and understanding must be prioritized,” Pankaj Srivastava, CEO, and co-founder of ClinicSpots, said.

“The employer should bear in mind that the situation calls for much more than just providing flexible working arrangements—it requires creating an environment of trust, support, and respect for their needs.”

Discuss flexible arrangements

If possible, sit down with the employee to discuss their diagnosis and what needs to be done, she said.

“Communication is key, so it’s important to stay in regular contact and check in on the employee's condition while offering them any support they may require.”

Depending on the individual circumstances of the employee’s illness, there are a variety of flexible arrangements that can be put into place, Srivastava said.

These may include changes to their working hours or days; providing access to special equipment; reducing workloads; allowing employees to work from home; providing additional training and mentoring; or even temporarily reassigning duties if an extended period of absence is necessary.

“It is always best to discuss these options with the employee first before making any decisions,” she said.

Legal requirements

The Fair Work Act 2009 sets out conditions that employers need to be aware of when it comes to dealing with sick employees.

Under section 97(a) of the Fair Work Act, an employee is allowed to take leave due to illness, while section 97(b) allows for employees to take leave to care for immediate family members.

Under section 352, an employer must not dismiss an employee because an employee is temporarily absent from work because of illness and/or injury.

“Under the Fair Work Act 2009 national system, permanent full-time employees are entitled to 10 days of paid personal/carer’s leave per year,” Alex Tees, senior solicitor, General Edge, said. “Permanent part-time employees and permanent employees with variable hours are entitled to 1/26th of their ordinary hours in paid personal/carer’s leave.

“Employees roll over any unused time but will not ordinarily receive a payout for unused sick leave once they retire or leave the company unless the employee’s modern award or enterprise agreement provides otherwise.”

Managing the workload of sick employees

One of the difficult aspects is managing the workload of the employee and deciding whether to hire someone as a contractor to help out or share the workload amongst existing employees.

Another difficult decision is how long do you manage a sick employee and what are you rights with regards to potentially terminating their employment?

“In short, you can terminate an employee in certain circumstances,” Tees said. “Any dismissal involving sick-related [or] injury-related absences from work, however, can be risky and it is best to seek professional legal advice.

“Also bear in mind that the employee’s modern award or workplace agreement, if applicable, may make provisions for terminating an employee in this case. In addition, employment agreements should adequately deal with termination for incapacity /sickness and in consonance with relevant workers compensation legislation for work related injuries. Above all deal with any situation sensitively and record in writing all communications.”

Sick leave is difficult to manage, especially for a small business, but it must be done in accordance with the Fair Work Act and any contract stipulations or awards covering the worker.

Communicating with employees

It is essential for employers to communicate with the worker throughout the illness.

“It’s important that to understand the many laws, regulations, and entitlements that surround sick leave for employees,” Tees said. “There are good and poor ways of addressing the issue of an employee genuinely suffering an incapacity and/or habitually making sickness related notifications.

“From having an honest, open conversation about their health and their ongoing fitness to undertake their role, to initiating disciplinary procedures where processes surrounding sick leave have not been adhered to, there are several ways to handle what appears to be excessive use of personal/carer’s leave if that scenario is apprehended to have arisen.

“Importantly bear in mind that often health matters should always be kept completely confidential and not generally be disseminated in the workplace.”

Recent articles & video

'There are a number of benefits that come from doing wellbeing well'

FWC finds early notice of end to fixed-term contract amounts to dismissal

Nearly 9 in 10 Australian employers concerned about finding top talent

SafeWork NSW announces more compliance checks for psychological safety

Most Read Articles

Queensland resolves dispute on long service leave entitlements

From full-time to casual: 'Struggling' employer converts worker's role without consent

Fired for 'verbally abusing' manager? Worker cries unfair dismissal amid health issues