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Talking to your employer about illness

4-minute read

If you get sick, you may need to take time off work or adjust the way in which you work. Your employer is not legally allowed to sack you because you are ill. Whether you tell them is up to you.

How you handle your employment when you get sick depends on the type of illness, the type of treatment you need, and how you feel. It is best to do what feels right for you.

Your rights and responsibilities as an employee

Sick leave, also known as personal leave, is one of the basic workplace rights in Australia. You can take paid sick leave when you cannot work because of a personal illness or injury (including stress or an illness related to a pregnancy).

There are two types of sick leave: paid sick leave and unpaid sick leave. You will get 10 days paid sick leave per year if you are in full-time employment, and a pro-rated (or proportionally reduced) number of days of sick leave if you are in part-time employment.

The balance at the end of 12 months carries over to the next year.

If you run out of sick leave, you can take unpaid leave at the discretion of your employer. Sometimes you can also take annual leave, depending on your contract. Your employer cannot fire you if you have been away for 3 months or less and you provide evidence of your illness or injury.

You will need to provide reasonable evidence of your illness to your employer, such as a medical certificate. This does not need to specify the details of your illness. You are also required by law to tell your employer if your condition affects your ability to do your job, or if it will cause health and safety issues for others (for example, if it is unsafe for you to handle machinery because you are taking medication that makes you drowsy).

If you are away for more than 3 months, you can’t be sacked if you’ve taken paid sick leave. But if you took unpaid sick leave or a combination of paid and unpaid leave for more than 3 months in a year, your employer is entitled to dismiss you. If this happens, you can challenge the dismissal if it’s unreasonable. For more information, visit the Fair Work Ombudsman website.

If you need advice, speak to Fair Work Australia or your union.

How your employer can support you

Some illnesses, like cancer, are considered under law to be a disability. Under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act, your employer must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so you can continue to work. These might include:

  • more breaks
  • reduced or flexible working hours, including working from home
  • changes to your workspace
  • additional supports like headsets or screen reading software

Many employers have employee support systems for employees who are ill. The Employment Assistance Fund, administered by JobAccess (the national government hub for disability employment issues), provides financial assistance to employers to help them support you.

Should you tell your employer?

Whether you tell your employer about your illness is a personal decision. There is no law that says you have to share your diagnosis with anyone.

If you do tell your employer, you have the right to privacy. They are not allowed to share the information with anyone else without your consent.

You might be worried about talking to your employer, especially if you have a mental illness. There is no need to tell them if:

  • you can still do your job in the same way
  • you are worried about discrimination or harassment at work
  • you do not feel your employer will support you
  • you already have enough support outside the workplace and do not feel you need any more at work

However, many people find the support of their employer can help them adjust their workload and get through their illness. Some advantages of telling your employer include:

  • You can put changes in place to help you stay at work.
  • If your illness impacts your work, it won't be seen as poor performance.
  • Adjustments to your workload might mean you do not need as many sick days.
  • Being open will mean your colleagues are more understanding.
  • It will avoid rumours and gossip.
  • You won’t have the stress of hiding your condition from your employer.
  • If you need to make a legal complaint later, like an unfair dismissal or discrimination complaint, telling your employer helps protect your rights.

You can weigh up the pros and cons of telling your employer with this tool from Heads Up.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2019

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