How should HR apply the new temporary sick pay rules to their organisations? Doing nothing could lead to problems, argues Louise Singh
Last month, in a surprise move, the government made a temporary change to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) regulations. Effective for absences that began on any day from 10 December through to 26 January inclusive, employees will now be able to self-certify for up to 28 days – up from just seven previously.
The rationale for the change is to help relieve pressure on the already-stretched NHS, allowing GPs to focus on the Covid-19 booster jab rollout. But there is widespread concern that this relaxation of the rules around self-certification is open to abuse.
The change introduces the risk that some staff – particularly those in lower-paid roles – might call in sick to take time off where annual leave may not have been granted by an employer, or to extend existing holidays.
This could prove particularly problematic for sectors like retail, where the January sales period requires a full quota of staff. So how can HR teams manage this change in the rules?
A delicate balancing act
The first step for employers is to consider how the new rules fit with any existing company sick pay (CSP) policies.
For example, if employees benefit from a higher rate of sick pay under your company sick pay policy, you may choose to request a sick note in the usual way, after seven days, as a condition of access to this benefit. Alternatively, you may choose to temporarily update your policies to grant the higher rate only after the extended 28-day self-certification window has passed. However, given that the change is currently only set to last a few weeks, you may wish to wait and see if it is extended before making any policy changes.
Fit note requirements
Regardless, employers must remember that whatever adjustments they make to their own CSP policies, the only legal change concerns the self-certification period.
Businesses are still obliged to pay SSP as normal, and must not withhold statutory pay for the first 28 days of absence.
There is some relief for smaller businesses in the form of the reintroduced SSP rebate scheme. Businesses with fewer than 250 employees will be reimbursed SSP for Covid-related absences, for up to two weeks per employee.
But whatever their stance on sick pay and self-certification, businesses must ensure that decisions are made with employee welfare in mind. In the long-term, creating a culture that clearly places wellbeing at its heart is crucial to ensure employees are not tempted to take advantage of sick pay benefits, and to manage both presenteeism and absenteeism.
One potential solution is to wait until an absence hits the seven-day mark before communicating that no additional certification is required.”
Ultimately, employees that are happy at work are less likely to take time off sick in the first place – whether legitimately or otherwise.
The key for HR teams in the coming weeks will be communication. Businesses will need to think carefully about how they announce any changes to employees – and indeed if they want to announce them at all. Some may worry that highlighting that longer periods of absence can be taken without medical certification may encourage unscrupulous behaviour.
One potential solution is to wait until an absence hits the seven-day mark before communicating that no additional certification is required.
Or, firms can communicate the changes up-front, making clear their support for the Covid booster drive, while also taking the opportunity to remind employees of any other occupational health benefits to support their healthy return to work.
While – for now – these measures are temporary, the new SSP rules will need clear thought from businesses to ensure they are not adversely affected, either financially or through staff shortages. Now that SSP is largely funded by employers rather than by the state, the government may choose to retain the longer self-certification period, prioritising freeing up GP capacity over holding down sick pay costs. Even if employers are not planning any short-term changes, it is important to think about the longer-term plan if the new rules are extended.
Careful assessment of the various risks, and transparent communications with employees, will be critical to navigating the change over the coming weeks – and to ensure businesses are on the front foot if any further changes are introduced.