In our last post, we looked into the complications associated with sacking an employee that’s on sick leave. However, along with that issue, there’s also the related question of how long they’re allowed to be on leave before you can dismiss them. In this post, we delve into that point further.  

How long can someone be on sick leave before you can dismiss them?

The short answer to this question is that there’s no specific period of time that you have to wait before you’re allowed to dismiss an employee. If their prolonged absence goes against their terms of employment and your company’s absence policy, letting them go is a reasonable course of action. 

However, when you decide to let an employee go for reasons related to sickness absence you need to tread lightly. Depending on the circumstances of their dismissal, the employee may contest it at an employment tribunal. The success of their appeal mainly rests on two things: 

  1. Your sickness absence policy: If you have written terms that detail how your company handles sickness absence and how clear that policy is about the possibility of dismissal. 
  2. If you following the correct procedure: We covered this in greater detail when looking at dismissing an employee on sick leave, but in short:
    • Look for ways to support the employee: Did you communicate with the employee while they were off sick and offer support in aiding their return to work?
    • Look for alternatives: Did you explore alternative duties that the employee could carry out instead, until they’ve recovered from their illness?
    • Keep records: Did you keep records of your communication with the employee and your efforts to find alternatives to dismissal?

Important milestones regarding sick leave

While there isn’t a definitive amount of time that has to elapse before you sack an employee for being off sick, there are a couple of important time milestones that may factor dismissing them. 

7 days

If an employee is office sick for more than 7 days in a row (inclusive of non-working days), they require a doctor’s note to confirm they aren’t fit for work. If an employee can provide this note after being absent and can resume their duties, there shouldn’t be any problem. In fact, some employees may produce a doctor’s note if they’ve been off for less than 7 days. 

If they can’t – or won’t – provide a doctor’s note, you could dismiss them for excessive absence in accordance with your absence policy (depending on what it says). The more times an employee has violated your excessive absence policy in this way, the less likely they’ll be able to successfully contest their dismissal.

Now, if an employee has been off sick for fewer than 7 days, they need to self-certify that they’ve been off sick. To do this, they simply need to confirm they were absent for reasons of sickness via a method defined by the company (email, completing a form, etc). 

However, you might encounter a scenario in which an employee is repeatedly off-sick for fewer than 7 days at a time – and never produces a doctor’s note. If you notice a pattern, which is all the more likely if you consistently track and manage staff absence, you’d need to talk to your employee about the situation.  You may uncover an illness they didn’t initially want to disclose, which, at best, you can now support them through. Or, at worst, you may discover they weren’t genuine sickness absences and will have to discipline them according – whether it’s a written warning or something more severe.

Should chronic absences persist, be they for more or less than 7 days or backed or not backed by a doctor’s note, you have a right to dismiss an employee. You just need to explore alternatives to dismissal first and document everything to prove you explored said alternatives.

Four weeks

When someone has been off sick from work for four weeks or more, that can be defined as long-term sickness. At this point, it’s clear that the employee’s illness is serious and their return to work may not be straightforward. Your company will have to explore possible roles for the sick employee with the help of a medical expert, before you decide to let them go.