What are your rights at work when you're sick?

young man blowing his nose
young man blowing his nose

Last year, the Indian government finally got round to firing electrical engineer AK Verma, who took sick leave in 1990 - and never came back.

He clocked up 24 years of absence before the authorities finally caught up with him. And he wasn't the only one: a year earlier, a teacher in central India was discovered to have been off sick for 23 years of her 24-year career.

But taking time off sick in the UK isn't quite such a doddle - or at least we don't feel that it is. More than a third of UK employees are nervous about asking their bosses for time off when they're ill, according to a survey by Printerland.co.uk.

As a result, a third of companies say that staff are increasingly coming into work while sick.

"Our research has shown that the main reason employees don't take time off because their workload is too high and they don't want colleagues to pick up their work," says Dr Jill Miller, research adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

"Managers should lead by example by taking their holiday and staying at home when they are sick, which creates a more supportive culture. Employers must make sure staff are given clear protocols and know how to book leave and who to contact when they are sick."

Many people find they struggle financially while off work with an illness. Research from First4Lawyers earlier this year revealed that an average person's monthly bills total £850 - £500 more than the statutory sick pay of £350 a month. As a result, says the firm, three quarters of workers are scared to take time off due to loss of income.

So what are your rights if you're ill?

If you're off sick for more than seven days in a row - including non-work days - you'll need a fit note, also known as a sick note, from your doctor. You may have to pay a fee for this if you ask for it before the seven days are up. Many employers ask staff to self-certify if they are sick for fewer than seven days.

If your illness lasts for more than four weeks, you're considered long-term sick and won't need weekly notes from the doctor - but you will need to agree a return to work plan with your employer.

And if you're long-term sick, then you can be sacked if you're not going to be able to return, even part-time or with less stressful work. You can challenge this decision, though, through an employment tribunal.

In terms of money, you're only entitled to statutory sick pay of £88.45, which should be paid for up to 28 weeks - and you'll only get that if you earn on average more than £112 per week before tax. However, many companies are more generous, offering 'contractual' or 'occupational' sick pay on top.

You're entitled to this even if you're an agency or casual worker, or even if you're on a zero-hours contract.

Shockingly, though, the UK is at the bottom of the European league when it comes to mandatory sick pay, according to Vouchercloud, with employees receiving on average only 18% of their pay. And, as the company's head of operations Chris Johnson says, "Sometimes missing just a couple of days can be the difference between a month in the black and a month in the red."

It's worth noting, though, that your holiday entitlement still builds up while you're off sick - and any that you don't use because of illness can be carried over into the next year.

And, finally, what if it's not you that's ill?

As a working parent, you have the right to take 'reasonable' time off to deal with a domestic emergency, including a sick child - although employers don't have to pay you for this. According to the TUC, around a quarter of working parents use this right each year.

Some employers provide paid compassionate or carers' leave - generally around five days per year - to deal with situations like looking after poorly children.

The TUC is calling for such schemes to become compulsory, with general secretary Frances O'Grady commenting, "A change in the law so that all working parents are entitled to take paid time off work when their child is ill and their usual childcare isn't an option would make a real difference."

Why Employees Are Coming To Work Sick
Why Employees Are Coming To Work Sick