Sick leave can be a difficult issue to deal with. Unless they are robots (and most are flesh-and-blood rather than metal and oil),employees do genuinely fall sick sometimes and employers have to accept and deal with that. Most employees are reasonably honest and only take time off when they’re genuinely ill. Others suffer from chronic Mondayitus and take the proverbial biscuit. Most employers may have an instinct if an absence is real or not, but it can be hard to determine what occasions of sickness are genuine, and which are exaggerated or made up completely.
Does the name Paul Marshallsea ring a ship’s bell? Mr Marshallsea, from Merthyr Tydfil, was on holiday in Australia. He was enjoying a beach barbeque with his wife when they heard cries for help from the sea. He saw a large shark swimming towards children. He grabbed the shark by the tail dragged it to deeper water off Bulcock Beach and saved the children from a potentially very unpleasant fate. The story made global headlines and he was hailed as a hero. But the shark wrestling episode has managed to bite Mr Marshallsea on the nose (metaphorically) and now he has hit the headlines for a second time after his employer has dismissed him from his employment.
Mr Marshallsea and his wife had both worked for the charity for over ten years. They had been on sick leave for work-related stress for almost a year. When the employer, the Pant and Dowlais Boys and Girls Club, came across photos of Mr Marshallsea engaged in his heroic act, they were less than impressed and considered that his actions equated to a breakdown of trust and confidence. The trustees’ upper lips were stiffened and they wrote to the Marshallseas, telling them that they had been dismissed. One letter (to Mr Marshallsea) read: “Whilst unfit to work, you were well enough to travel to Australia, and according to recent news footage of yourself in Queensland, you allegedly grabbed a shark by its tail and narrowly missed being bitten by jumping out of the way…”
Personally, I think they may have missed a trick for some rather nifty publicity for the charity, but there you go …. Mr Marshallsea may or may not have been swinging the lead; I’m not a doctor, I don’t know. It certainly happens. But workplace stress is a common problem, affecting one in five of the working population. Doctors often advise suffers to take a break and do things to enhance their mental positivity. Just because you’re sick doesn’t mean that you have to be confined to bed. In this case, the employer should have investigated matters before deciding whether to take disciplinary action. And even if they did decide that on the facts that some sort of disciplinary sanction was merited, this man has long service (and employment tribunals always equate long service to loyalty). Whether Mr Marshallsea was pushing it a bit – who knows? But dismissal seems to be a serious over-reaction. Treading carefully is always wise.
If you have an employee who is suffering from stress, try to keep the lines of communication open whilst he is absent. Make regular contact and if he is reluctant to speak to you, be flexible and offer to communicate via email instead. There’s nothing to prevent him going on holiday during an ill health absence, provided that it has been agreed. (The usual rules of work still apply.)
Consider getting occupational health advice. See what you can do to aid the return to work. Being at home with nothing but daytime TV for company can make someone’s condition worse; we are pack animals and being alone tends to make us depressed (if we weren’t before). So if they and the doctor are in agreement, go for the thin end of the wedge, starting with a phased return to work or rearrangement of duties for example.
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