It’s a busy Tuesday morning in the office. The workplace has been thrown into chaos - the printer won’t work, and the on-screen error messages are nonsense, as usual. There’s only one person to fix it. Dave the IT guy is the man who understands - but he’s been off sick for a week. Nightmare. What can you do?  

Well first of all, you shouldn’t have only one person who knows how the printer works (or any part of your business). That’s called a SPOF - Single Point of Failure. It’s why any IT or electrical system has multiple failsafes - like aeroplane engines being independently wired so they can’t all fail at the same time.  

So that’s a lesson for the next time the printer fails. But what can you do now? Dave’s at home nursing a bad case of gastroenteritis - can you give him a call and ask for a walkthrough?

Should you ever contact employees who are off sick?

Like so many things in the business world, it's a matter of opinion. You're free to do it - but you must be aware of the potential consequences.

Real-life examples can be a bit more complicated than printer jams, especially for smaller businesses. Imagine you’ve got a small startup with four specialists -  a Managing Director, Marketing Lead, Customer Service Manager, and Operations Manager.

The MD might be able to answer a customer query if his CSM is away, but would they know what to do if their communication software went down? Or would they be able to help on an urgent query that’s part of an ongoing case?

In situations like these, it might be tempting to pick up the phone. But you have to be aware of what problems it might cause.

What are the consequences of calling an employee who's off sick?

It's not guaranteed to do them any good.

Stressing about the goings-on in the office will almost certainly get in the way of their rest & recovery. Especially if it’s a mental health concern where forgetting all about work is the best course of action. Perpetuating an always-on, always-connected culture where workers feel obliged to answer emails and calls out of work hours raises everyone’s stress levels, and doesn’t make for a happy or productive business - even if it feels right at the time.

Phoning for help also puts pressure on them to come back sooner. Whether you explicitly say it or not, seeking their help lets them know you’re struggling without them. If they do end up returning sooner than planned, it means they won’t be 100% and it could cause another absence.

Or if they’ve got something contagious (ie. Covid-19), there’s a risk of it spreading round the office - which puts your other employees in danger.

Most illnesses mean they won't be in the best state to help with anything other than simple enquiries. In contrast, a sprained ankle or bad back probably wouldn’t infirm their capacities too much and a quick call might be alright with them.

Making a judgement on which situation warrants a call is not easy. Sometimes, if an employee has been away for a while, it’s nice to call and check in with them anyway, so they don’t feel isolated or forgotten, as part of your duty of care. So a short check up and chat could be combined with asking for some help.

If it’s an emergency and must be done - be sensitive, apologetic and appreciative. And make it quick!

Avoiding the need to call employees who are off sick

One future solution to these woes would be to have documentation and cross-company training for processes that only one person can do. This should be an ongoing process, not a one-off thing. For small companies where expertise really is divided and you can’t fill in for each other, is there a system in place for absences?

For example, customer complaints could have an auto-response stating they won’t be looked at until that person is back. Or for sales enquiries asking for a software demo that can’t be arranged until the Sales Director is back at work - again, a holding response can be automated.

Speaking of documentation, contacting absentees (or not) can be put into policy too. For example, in your sickness and absence policy - which we wrote a guide for writing - regular contact can be put as an appropriate absence management policy, as long as all employees are trained on what is and isn’t acceptable.

Questions to ask before you call someone who's off sick

Inspired by the writing of Helen Dallimore at law firm Foot Anstey, it’s worth asking questions before deciding to call an employee who’s off sick:

  • Why do you need to call them?
  • Could their illness be exacerbated by making contact?
  • Is it an immediate need, or could it wait for when they come back?
  • Has the employee been initiating contact themself?
  • Could your contact be seen as victimisation?
  • Are you putting them under pressure to come back to work too soon?

I’ve definitely had jobs where I’d ‘accidentally’ miss the call if I saw it was a colleague calling when I was off sick. You don’t know if the request is simple (“where is this file?”) or ridiculous (“any chance you can come in on the late shift tonight? we’re short”) so it might be tempting to let it ring out.

If you’re the one making the call, you’ve got to expect to be unanswered.

Feature photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash