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Employment Solicitor Homa Wilson discusses long term sick leave

The metaphor 'Grasping the nettle' may be a useful phrase when tackling problems but following a recent story, perhaps a new contender: 'wrestling the shark', may work metaphorically, but certainly not in practice.

Paul Marshallsea was on an Australian beach, when he heard cries of “Help! Shark!”. This prompted him to rush over, grab the shark by its tail and swing it away from a group of children. This is real Crocodile Dundee stuff – it was captured on camera and broadcast around the world. So widely, that it caught the attention of his employer in Merthyr Tydfil in the UK.

Hollywood blockbuster in the making or a Merthyr Tydfil bust-up? Well, his employer responded by dismissing him with immediate effect for breach of trust and confidence. At the time Paul ‘Hogan’ Marshallsea was signed off sick with stress.

It seems that his employer took the view that he should not have been enjoying a barbie on the beach nor, it seems, did it consider shark wrestling an appropriate remedy for stress.

This story raises interesting questions about what an employer expects from an employee who is on long-term sick leave and serves as a reminder to employees how to behave when off sick.

If you are on long-term sick leave, what your employer can expect of you depends very much on the reason for your sickness and your ability to undertake work. There does seem to be a lack of understanding on the part of employers as to how individuals suffering from stress ‘ought’ to behave. You are not expected to remain in a darkened room, humming along to Leonard Cohen. However, it is reasonable for your employer to ask questions - especially when footage of you emerges which seems to suggest an improvement in your condition.

If your employer has a sickness policy make sure you familiarise yourself with it. In particular, make a note of who you need to notify, how frequently and by what method. Make sure you are aware of your obligations and are able to comply.

Remember you are still an employee. It sounds obvious but in cases of long-term sick leave, where an employee has been off work for a month or longer, it’s easy to forget as your focus may have changed. This is especially so where the cause of the illness is work related. It’s understandable that you may wish to create distance between yourself and your workplace. However difficult though it may seem, it is advisable that you maintain dialogue with your employer.

Your doctor’s recommendations do not override the duties owed to your employer. If your doctor advises sun, sea and sand as a suitable remedy, it’s sensible to obtain a note to this effect to seek your employer’s permission before making any travel arrangements.

If you want to take annual leave whilst you are on sick leave you are entitled to do so. You should make your request in the usual way. However, the form of annual leave should of course be consistent with the medical advice received.

This story is yet another reminder that the internet and social media have changed the rules of engagement and practice. I doubt that Paul Marshallsea conceived that his employer might find out that he was in Australia or that he even considered how his behaviour could be viewed by his employer - after all he has been hailed as a hero by many.

It’s worth remembering that in this internet age and with the proliferation of social media, anyone and everyone has the ability to capture and share anything and everything - and this is changing the rules of engagement. You may be careful what you say and share, but is everyone else?

Find out more about Contract and Dismissal issues.

By Employment Solicitor Homa Wilson.