What Is Sick Leave? Everything You Need to Know

In many parts of the world, employers must give their employees paid time off work when they’re sick. But did you know that the specific regulations for sick leave differ from one country to the next?

What Is Sick Leave? Everything You Need to Know
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Every employee will have to call in sick to work at some point, so you need to understand your obligations as an employer, both for their benefit and your own. If you fail to comply with local regulations, you could face fines or legal action.

In this guide, we break down the main topics related to sick leave and reveal how your business can manage it on a global scale with ease.

Sick Leave Meaning

Sick leave is a type of paid leave employees can take when they feel unwell or sick, as the name suggests. It’s typically separate from paid vacation time and is a mandatory entitlement in most countries worldwide. It may also be called “medical leave,” “sickness absence,” or simply “sick days.”

Local employment law determines employers’ obligations and employees’ entitlements, including how many sick days an employee can take, how much pay they receive, and eligibility criteria. Often, regulations treat short-term illness and long-term illness differently.

Statutory Sick Leave Vs. Employer Sick Leave

Statutory sick leave is governed by local employment law, and employers must comply with relevant regulations.

On the other hand, employer sick leave is an employee benefit that goes above and beyond regulatory requirements. For example, an employer may choose to offer more sick days or higher pay as part of their company’s sickness policy. These details should also be included within the employment contract or collective bargaining agreement.

There are many stated benefits to offering generous paid sick leave, including:

  • Improved employee wellbeing
  • Enhanced productivity
  • Boosted profitability

This article primarily focuses on statutory sick leave and the related compliance issues.

Who Is Eligible for Sick Leave?

Eligibility criteria for sick leave and sick pay differ across the world. Some countries have more requirements than others, but typically they cover factors like employee type (e.g., office worker vs. manual worker), job tenure, contributions to social security, length of sickness, and reason for sick leave.

In some jurisdictions, there’s a waiting period for sick pay, which means employees aren’t eligible to receive pay until they’ve been off work for a certain number of days. For example, France has a waiting period of three days, so employees are only entitled to pay if they remain off work for four days or more.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries relaxed eligibility criteria and waiting periods to accommodate for self-isolation. Some of these relaxations may end as restrictions and lockdowns are lifted.

Sick Leave Reasons

The permitted reasons for taking sick leave depend on local regulations and employer policies. As a general rule, if an employee is unable to carry out their work as usual due to ill health, they can take sick leave.

Sick leave reasons may include:

  • Contagious illness
  • Physical injury or illness
  • Mental health-related illness (including “stress leave”)
  • Medical appointments
  • Hospitalization

In some cases, employees may take sick leave to care for an unwell family member, but often this is classified as emergency leave, special leave, or compassionate leave instead.

Photo of a doctor holding a stethoscope

How Much Is Sick Pay?

Sick leave pay or sickness benefit is the money an employee is entitled to receive when they take time off sick. The amount they’re entitled to depends on the regulations of their local jurisdiction.

While some countries provide full pay during sick leave, others offer a percentage of normal pay or a fixed lump sum. Some countries also impose sick pay ceilings that limit the amount of pay an employee can receive. The amount of sick pay owed may also change depending on how long the employee is off sick.

For example, employees in Austria receive full pay during the first 6-8 weeks and half-pay for the following four weeks, while employees in Spain receive 60-75% of their normal base salary for up to one year of sick leave. In the UK, employees are entitled to a flat-rate sum of just £99.35 a week for up to 28 weeks.

Some of the most generous countries for sick pay are:

On the other end of the spectrum, the US has no federal requirement for employers to provide sick pay. However, companies subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) must allow their employees to take unpaid leave for serious illness. Despite the lack of federal requirements, several states, such as California and New York, have now implemented mandatory paid sick leave.

Who Pays for Sick Leave?

Sick pay is paid either by the employer, the government (through social security), or a combination of the two.

Often, the employer is responsible for paying sick pay for short-term illness, while government sick pay or sickness benefit covers long-term illness. However, this isn’t always the case.

For example, employers in Bulgaria pay 70% of an employee’s salary for the first three days of sick leave, and the National Security Institute pays 80-90% after that. However, in the Netherlands, employers are responsible for paying 70% of an employee’s wages for up to two years of sick leave.

In some jurisdictions and circumstances, employers can claim back sick pay from the government. This is the case in Spain, where employers make the payments to sick employees for the first 4-20 days but will be reimbursed by the social security department.

It’s worth remembering that government-mandated sick pay is a minimum requirement, but many employers choose to “top up” sick pay as an employee benefit. In many countries, it’s also customary to do so, so employees may expect a number of fully paid sick days even if the state doesn’t make it obligatory.

How Many Sick Leave Days Can Employees Take per Year?

Local regulations determine the length of sick leave an employee is entitled to. While some countries, like Luxembourg, allow for over a year of paid sick leave, others provide just a few days per year.

Employers can choose to give their employees more sick days per year than the statutory minimum as an employee benefit. This should be outlined within their employment contract.

While most workers only take a week or two off sick each year, others experiencing long-term sickness may be signed off work for several months at a time. Whether it’s taking time off work for mental health or recovering from surgery, long-term sick pay, where available, provides employees with an income while they’re unfit to work.

Sick Leave FAQs

Below we answer more of your frequently asked questions about sick leave and sick pay.

What Is Statutory Sick Pay?

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is a UK policy that provides sick workers with £99.35 per week for up to 28 weeks. It’s paid by the employer. Government-mandated sick pay is available in many other countries, but amounts and applications vary considerably.

What Is Medical Leave?

Medical leave is another term for sick leave. It’s commonly used in the US, where federal (unpaid) sick leave is regulated by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) is a benefit found in several US states.

How Do You Make an Application for Sick Leave?

The sick leave application process depends on local regulations and company policies. In some cases, it’s as simple as notifying the employer on the day by phone or email and logging it on the HRIS system; in other cases, more formal documentation may be required.

For example, employees may need to provide their employer with a sick note or proof of illness signed by a doctor. This is the case in the UK where employees need to provide a sick note (or “fit note”) if they’re off work for more than seven days.

In some jurisdictions, employees need to apply for sick leave or medical leave through the local social security authority to receive cash benefits.

As an employer, you should keep your employees informed about how they can access sick leave and sick pay. This can help reduce stress during an already stressful time.

What Is Considered Sick Leave Abuse?

Sick leave abuse happens when an employee takes sick leave off work without having a valid reason outlined within the law or their employment contract. Often, it’s associated with frequent use of sick leave, which is referred to as absenteeism.  

If an employee repeatedly abuses sick leave, the employer may have the right to use disciplinary measures, including dismissal. Often, it’s best to speak to the employee first to confirm if and why they’re misusing sick leave so you can get to the root of the cause.

Before taking disciplinary actions, you should always refer to local laws and regulations to ensure compliance.

Manage Global Sick Leave Compliantly with Omnipresent

Being a global-first company allows you to tap into expert talent, grow your business at speed, and get ahead of your competitors. However, it’s not easy or cost-effective to handle international compliance and HR functions like sick leave on your own.

Fortunately, Omnipresent’s global employment solutions can help you build world-class teams without the hassle. Using our tech-enabled platform and team of local experts, we take care of all related HR and compliance administration, including:

If you’re ready to go global-first, book a free consultation with our team to get started.

The information on this page is for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice. Please see our disclaimer for more information.

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Eunise Ling

Eunise is a Paralegal in the APAC team with a law degree from the University of Liverpool. Prior to joining Omnipresent, Eunise has worked in various start-ups based in London. She is from Malaysia but is currently based in Singapore.

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