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Employment Solicitor Lauren Hillier asks - can you afford to be ill?

If you feel obliged to struggle to work despite a stinking cold, then you’re not alone. A recent survey has found that 93% of workers are reluctant to take time off sick. 

In fact, the average number of sick days per employee has fallen every year since the start of the recession; from 5.7 days in 2007 to 4.1 in 2012. And it’s unlikely to be because everyone has suddenly started taking their grandmothers’ advice about wearing a vest and eating an apple a day.    

Although many workers have the benefit of sick pay, so that they wouldn’t miss out on earnings, they are concerned that taking any time off sick could put their job at risk. The survey showed that a third of employees would take annual leave rather than sick leave as they didn’t want to affect their attendance record. And 13% of employees specifically cited the threat of Redundancy as the reason that they will not take a day off sick. Over the past few years, people have understandably begun to feel much less secure in their jobs, and much less hopeful about finding something new if they were to be made redundant.   

It’s less common these days to see sickness absence as an official part of a redundancy selection process, as employers are wary of discriminating against disabled employees. But it is sometimes still used, and if your absence has been caused by a one-off illness, rather than an ongoing condition, then you are unlikely to be protected by discrimination legislation. And even if it’s not an official selection criterion, employees remain understandably concerned that when difficult decisions have to be made, any sickness absence may count against them.  

A recent change in the Employment Law that is also likely to have an effect on sickness absence is the increase to the qualifying service for Unfair Dismissal Claims from one to two years. Before an employee has reached two years’ service, an employer can dismiss them relatively easily; with no need for them to show a fair reason and no statutory redundancy pay. Since this change came into force, many more employees are extremely vulnerable to dismissal. This change has only really started to have an impact on employees from 2013 onwards, so we can expect the statistics for this year to continue the trend of employees taking less and less time off sick.  

Despite the fact that sickness absence has been falling year on year, David Cameron has still seen fit to slam the UK’s “sick note culture”. This rhetoric only exacerbates a situation where genuinely ill employees are too worried about being seen as weak or lazy to take time off. They rush back to work at a time when their productivity will be low, their recovery may be set back and they risk spreading infection among colleagues. While there may be no quick fixes to the economy that will make people feel more secure in their employment, the government is not helping the problem by continuing to chip away at employment rights and sending the message that any sickness absence is malingering.  

If you need advice about Redundancy Law or Disability Discrimination, contact one of our Employment Law team on 0800 916 9060.