Sick leave: Your rights and obligations


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Sick leave: Your rights and obligations


We all take sick leave at one time or another. But what are you entitled to, and how much is too much?

Fainting was the last thing on Getup! president Simon Sheikh’s mind when he sat down in front of a live audience for a broadcast of ABC’s QandA. Yet, during a debate on the carbon tax, Sheikh’s shoulders lurched forward, his head hit the table and his limp body slumped over Coalition frontbencher Sophie Mirabella. It was later revealed in a statement that Sheikh was struggling to overcome the flu.

With just three percent of Australian workers taking sick leave at any given time, Sheikh’s lapse into unconsciousness should be a lesson to us all about the importance of looking after yourself when unwell.

Employees who do not consider taking sick leave not only face the possibility of keeling over like Sheikh, but they could be harming their co-workers.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman Australia, sick leave is a type of personal leave that should be used when an employee is too sick or injured to attend work. Full-time employees are entitled to ten days personal paid leave, while part-time workers receive a pro-rata entitlement based on the number of hours they work.

You are not welcome
“The main thing to keep in mind is that most coughs, colds and viral infections are spread by coughing and contact with people,” says Professor John Gullotta, former president of the Australian Medical Association NSW. “If you go to work there’s a chance you can spread it to other people in the work place, which is creating an unsafe environment for your colleagues.”

Under the Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare Act, 1986, an employer is legally obligated to provide a healthy and safe workplace for their employees. This means staff members who do not consider taking sick leave and employers who do not enforce time off, could be breaking the law.

“Employees who turn up to work, exhausted and physically ill, are not behaving responsibly, nor is it responsible for employers to tolerate it because they are endangering themselves and other people in the work place,” says Peter Wilson, national president of the Australian Human Resources Institution (AHRI).

It’s your right
Wilson advises that sick leave should be taken not only when you are suffering from a virus but also in circumstances of high stress levels or extreme fatigue. According to Wilson, one in five Australians will suffer a mental illness, predominantly anxiety or depression.

“One in two will experience a form of mental illness during their working life,” he says. “When people have a mental health condition it is a bonafide illness and should be treated just the same way as a virus.”

How much is too much?
According to the AHRI, most employers have a rule that the first two days’ sick leave do not require a medical certificate.

“Any longer than that and you should be carting yourself off to a doctor,” Wilson says.

Professor Gullotta advises that a medical certificate is a legal document that protects you from allegations of fraudulent conduct and determines the length of time you should be taking off work.

“If you can’t get to the doctor that very day, the next day you may still be able to receive a certificate,” he says. “So long as the doctor sees evidence of an illness.”

For employees suffering from a long term illness, Wilson advises, once you exhaust your initial leave entitlement, it is at your employer’s discretion to offer you more time on leave.

“Whether it’s paid or unpaid, an employer will often negotiate a situation that is comfortable for both of you,” he says.

About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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