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Andrew Arkley|October 21, 2022

Sick Days At Work: The Rules Around Sick Days In The UK

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Sick days at work are an important topic for employers and employees alike.

However, the rules surrounding sick days can be complex, resulting in potentially uncomfortable misunderstandings for both parties.

Nobody likes being ill, but whether it’s simply an awful cold or something more serious, it happens to everyone.

While many will endeavour to “soldier on” and work sick with a minor illness, it can significantly hinder your performance in the workplace. What’s more, your recovery may take longer and you risk spreading anything infectious to your colleagues.

Interestingly, as a nation, the number of sick days we take is well below the European average.

Increased remote working is no doubt a factor in this – but workplace culture has also been cited as a reason. For example, some employees may feel pressured by management to work despite illness. Indeed, over a third of UK workers admit to working when unwell.

While we’d never advocate “pulling a sicky”, it’s vital that you take time to recover from illness, whether mental or physical. In the long run, it benefits everyone – yourself, your employer and your colleagues.

We’ve created this guide so you can understand the key rules surrounding sick days at work in the UK.

How to call in sick – professionally

So, you’ve been up all night, everything aches and you hardly have the strength to sit up, let alone get to work.

Put the guilt aside – you need to call in sick.

Yes, if you’re able to, you should call. It’s far more professional to call rather than email or text, and it may even reassure your boss to hear your voice. Oh, and do make sure it’s you calling – not your wife, parent, friend, etc. – that’s not a great look.

Your workplace will likely have a policy around calling in sick; this should detail who you should contact (generally the HR manager or your line manager) and by what time. 

At this stage, you don’t need to provide extensive details about your condition. However, should you be off sick for several days, you should be updating your employer daily.

If you’re away from work for a week or more, you’ll need to obtain a doctor’s “fit note” (previously known as a sick note) . This is to provide medical evidence that confirms you have been unwell.

On returning to work, your employer may ask you to fill out a form or email details of your illness to HR. This is known as “self-certification” and is common practice.

Note: if you’re off work for less than seven days, your employer has no right to ask to see a fit note.

What is statutory sick pay?

If your illness is keeping you away from work, you may be worrying about the financial implication – however, you can still be paid. Statutory sick pay (SSP) comes in here.

If you’re sick for at least four days in a row – including non-working days – you may be entitled to SSP.

SSP used to be £96.35 per week but in 2023/24, it increased to £109.40 paid. Sick pay statutory payments then rose to £116.75 on 6 April 2024.

You can receive these sick pay entitlements for up to 28 weeks in a year, as confirmed by the government.

Your employer may in fact pay out more than this; your HR team should share information on this in any employee handbook or statement of employment. This is often called occupational, company or contractual sick pay. 

If you’re an agency worker, you’re also entitled to SSP. Note: you aren’t eligible to receive SSP if you’re already benefiting from statutory maternity, paternity, adoption or additional paternity pay.

How many sick days am I allowed per year?

There’s no legal limit on how many sick days you can take.

However, many employers will either formally or informally monitor the number of days you take and may state their own threshold for what is acceptable.

Some employers use the Bradford Factor to monitor time taken off for sick leave; they may carry out further investigation if this exceeds what they deem acceptable.

A return to work interview is one method for doing this and ensures both employer and employee are on the same page when it comes to your sickness absence.

If you’re on the mend, but not ready to work full time, you may wish to discuss a phased return to work. This reduces the number of sick days you need to take and shows commitment to your employer.

Can I be sacked for being off sick for too long?

If you are off work for more than four weeks, you will be considered long-term sick.

A long-term sick employee can be dismissed – but not without serious consideration.

For example, an employer must look at how they can make a return to work possible. This might be through adapting the sick employee’s schedule, changing their role, or providing additional support. This process should be a two-way street, with the employee involved in mapping out what is feasible.

If you believe you’ve been unfairly dismissed, you can take your case to an employment tribunal.

Sickness during holidays or notice periods

So, you’ve been waiting all week for a well-deserved break – and as fate would have it, you’re ill.

It’s a little-known fact that if you fall ill during your annual leave, you are allowed to rearrange it. This is more than fair considering that had you not been on paid holiday, you would have been calling in sick.

You’ll receive sick pay instead of holiday pay for the period you’re unwell. The same absence procedures will apply. That means keeping HR or your line manager informed of your situation and obtaining a fit note if you are unwell for seven days or longer.

Note: your employer can’t ask you to use your annual leave allowance when you’re off sick.

During your notice period, you remain an employee and therefore should receive normal pay and continue to be eligible for SSP.

You are entitled to take sick days during your notice period, but you’ll need to go through the usual protocols, e.g. obtaining a fit note if required.

Sick days at work: The rules surrounding sick days

Here, we’ve covered some of the most queried rules surrounding sick days in the UK. 

However, this is an extensive topic and it’s worth talking to your HR or management if you’re unsure about your workplace’s policies on ill health.

And if you’re self-employed but working for an employer, the situation is of course more nuanced. Elsewhere on our blog we’ve written about taking compassionate leave in the UK.

If you’d like to discuss any of the above further or are looking to take the next step in your career, do get in touch with our team today!

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