With the well-documented pressures on the National Health Service it is increasingly the case that an employee needing a doctor’s or medical appointment will have little choice regarding the timing of that appointment. It’s fine for an employer to express a preference that the employee will arrange these outside office hours but in practice this simply may not be possible.
So how is an employer to deal with a request for time off to attend a medical appointment?
The first thing to note is that a planned appointment is by definition not covered by sickness absence provisions. This may sound strange, but the purpose of sickness absence is to cover unexpected and unplanned absence caused by sickness or ill health. (Of course if an employee is sick and needs to go to the doctor/hospital unexpectedly then that would be covered by sickness provisions.)
Equally, however, holiday absence is designated time for an employee’s rest and relaxation, which doesn’t really fit with attending the GP surgery or hospital. In practice, employees use holiday absence for all sorts of things other than rest but it is important to be aware that this is its primary purpose.
The options for dealing with this type of absence are as follows:
• Take the time off as holiday leave. For a one off appointment this may be the best option. However, if the employee is likely to need multiple appointments that could seriously erode their holiday leave, then a wise employer would review this with the employee and try to ensure that the employee keeps back enough holiday to use for rest and relaxation. The employer should also be alert to the possibility that extensive appointments might indicate that there is a long term underlying condition that could amount to a “disability” for the purposes of the Equality Act, imposing additional requirements to consider making reasonable adjustments to the employee’s place, time or hours of work.
• Take the time off as unpaid leave. This has the advantage of preserving the employee’s holiday entitlement so that it is used for its intended purpose. An employee may, however, prefer to take the leave as holiday rather than not being paid.
• Make up the missed hours at a different time. This is not always an option, depending on the type of business and what work the employee does, however if there is a mutually convenient time that the hours could be made up (e.g. if the employee is part-time and can swap working days) then this may be a solution.
If an employee’s condition means that they fall within the definition of “disabled”, and time off from work is for related medical appointments, then this should not count towards any disciplinary process based on absence, nor for any assessment for selection for redundancy.
What if the employee doesn’t want to take the time as leave and states that they can still work while in the waiting room or while travelling?
The answer to this is going to be entirely dependent on the facts.
A short, local appointment with little potential for emotional or physical impact sits at one end of the scale. A lengthy consultation involving travelling, physical processes and the possibility of unwelcome news sits at the other.
The employer will need to take into account all the points made above and balance the need to act in a fair manner (and to make possible the need to make reasonable adjustments) against the business’s need to have the work done. Where work is being undertaken in an area that is not private, such as a hospital waiting room or train, issues of confidentiality come to the fore.
However, it might be possible to arrange for the employee to prioritise a different type of work for the day, or a proportion of it, so that only part of the day needs to be taken as leave (whether holiday or unpaid). The employer is not required to completely re-arrange workflow to accommodate the employee’s desire to work when away from the office but proper consideration should be given to the request.
It is much harder to deal with these circumstances if your staff contracts and handbook are not up to date. We offer fixed price agreements to cover reviewing and updating these or putting them in place if you don’t yet have them. Please contact us for an initial chat about your requirements.