Feeling unwell is always difficult in itself. However, the discomfort of illness is often compounded for employees who worry that they might be fired from their place of work for being sick.
There are a few reasons why an employer might make the decision to dismiss an employee due to illness. With that being said, there are laws in place to prevent unfair dismissal relating to illness and disability in the workplace.
In today’s article, we’ll be covering the situations that could lead to illness-related dismissal from work, as well as the rights that you have in these situations. Finally, we’ll talk about steps to take to mitigate the risk of being fired for being sick.
Reasons you could be fired for being sick
We’ll start with the bad news, which is that there are some circumstances under which your employer legally has the right to dismiss you for being unwell.
The good news, which we’ll get to later, is that you do have rights regarding your health and your employment. For now, though, let’s examine some of the situations wherein an employer may be within their legal right to dismiss you for your health status.
The U.K. Government lists several potential reasons for dismissal under the ‘Redundancies, dismissals, and disciplinaries’ section of employment legislation.
While many of the reasons given for fair dismissal are related to workplace conduct (for example, being found to be in breach of the law or to have committed gross misconduct), there are two particular statutes that encompass prolonged illness.
The first point indicates that an employer may dismiss you for being sick if your illness is ‘persistent’ or ‘long-term’, to the extent that it prevents you from being able to fulfil your duties at work.
It is also stated in U.K. workplace legislation that an employer may dismiss you if you are unable to keep up with your workload. There are many potential reasons why you may find yourself unable to complete tasks at work, ranging from simple incompatibility with the type of work required to some physical and mental illnesses.
As you can see, the grounds for illness-related dismissal from the workplace are far from black and white. It can be difficult, therefore, to navigate the terrain of fair dismissal versus unfair dismissal when it comes to illness. This is why it’s so important to know and exercise your rights.
Illness and work: Your rights
Where your employment and health are concerned, you have certain rights. Being aware of your rights is the best way to ensure that you aren’t unfairly dismissed or discriminated against because of your illness.
First, it’s important to note that your employer should afford you reasonable recovery time after being made aware of your illness. This, of course, can vary depending on the nature of the illness. It is not acceptable for an employer to dismiss you with immediate effect upon finding out that you are unwell.
It is also expected that an employer should make any possible reasonable adjustments to your work or workplace by way of support. This could include a range of different changes.
Examples of such adjustments could include relocating your office from upstairs to downstairs if your illness makes it difficult for you to climb stairs or rescheduling your lunch break so that you can attend doctors’ appointments. There will, of course, be situations where adjustments of this nature will not be possible, but the expectation is that the employer will provide support as far as possible.
We should also distinguish between illness and disability at this point because the terms have a certain amount of overlap. According to the Equality Act of 2010, a disability is a health condition, be it physical or mental, that constitutes a significant and persistent impact on your day to day life.
In order to be classed as a disability, a condition must be accompanied by symptoms that occupy a significant amount of time on a daily basis or impair your daily functioning (physical or mental) to a noticeable degree. In terms of what is considered to be a persistent or long-term condition, the illness must be present for 12 months or longer. A progressive illness (a physical or mental condition that worsens over time) may also qualify as a disability.
An employer is not legally permitted to dismiss an employer purely because they have become disabled. If, upon being made aware of your disability, an employer attempts to dismiss you or make you redundant despite there being no significant impact on your work performance or without attempting to provide proper disability support, this is discrimination, which is unlawful.
How to avoid dismissal for being sick
If you have developed a severe or persistent illness/disability, there are steps that you can take to mitigate the risk of being dismissed.
First, you should obtain a sick note or ‘fit note’ from your primary care practitioner. This may entitle you to statutory sick pay for a period of up to 28 weeks, or to time off work while your employers put reasonable adjustments into effect. This time should not legally be recorded as an absence and should not affect your job security.
If, after reasonable adjustments have been put in place, you feel that you are being unfairly discriminated against due to your condition, the best thing to do is to raise a grievance through your workplace’s HR department.
The next step would be to contact your Union for representation. Should all else fail, you can file a disability discrimination claim through an employment tribunal within three months.
The bottom line is that employers are within their rights to dismiss you for illness-related underperformance or absence from work.
However, employers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments as far as possible in order to support employees through long-term illness or disability. Failure to do so may be classified as discrimination, in which case, you are within your right to raise workplace grievances or take your complaint to a tribunal.
If you become unwell or develop a disability whilst employed, contact your primary care practitioner at the earliest opportunity to obtain a fit note. Also, make sure that you know what you are entitled to in terms of Statutory Sick Pay.