The Australian Medical Association has hit back at claims employees are abusing the sick leave system by faking illness to obtain a medical certificate, suggesting some employers could be contributing to or even causing the problem.
A My Business reader alleged that a “well-known ‘trick’” used by employees is to use their doctor to legitimise taking sick leave right before they quit or are fired for poor performance, in order to use up their accrued sick leave, which is not paid out on termination of employment.
“The well-known ‘trick’ used by difficult employees when they are about to resign or have been ‘reasonably managed’ is to run off to the doctor and take all their sick leave, which can potentially run into weeks,” the reader claimed.
“[It is] another way they know they can cause the business owner some pain. This is something else that needs to be addressed. Again the employees know to use the medical system to facilitate their bullying.”
Two sides to every story
Dr Richard Kidd, chair of the Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) Council of General Practice, told My Business that employers shouldn't jump to conclusions, as there are two sides to a story.
He suggested that employers “need to step up” to determine why an employee may be “difficult”, rather than taking an adversarial approach against them, because the root cause of the problem could be closer to home.
“As a GP, I’ve found a number of people who are in very difficult situations at their place of employment where they are being harassed, bullied, victimised, alienated and they may well be deemed to be difficult employees by the employer,” he said.
“The first thing to be aware of is that there is often two sides to a story, and, in this case, very often the people actually need to use that sick leave because the situation is untenable where they are and they actually can’t work.”
While Dr Kidd acknowledged that some patients may lie about their symptoms to obtain medical certificates, doctors ultimately have to act in the best interest of their patient “and so we tend to believe our patients if they say they are being harassed, bullied and really starting to suffer from anxiety, panic attacks; they can’t sleep, waking up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning with their minds just worrying about what’s going to happen the next day at work”.
But he said it could be very apparent that a patient is distressed when, for example, they “[get] halfway to work and [have] a massive panic attack, having to stop the car and not be able to get to work, and having to come to the GP asking for a sickness certificate, heart rate up, obviously looking quite distressed”.
Be proactive to circumvent difficulties
In such situations, experienced GPs may offer to intervene as a mediator, Dr Kidd said, to better understand the issues leading to the patient’s distress and health issues, “and sometimes this can be quite a successful way forward”.
“There may well have been misunderstandings and apprehensions on both sides that led to a difficult situation, and sometimes with some constructive mediation, those situations can be retrieved and the employer and employee don’t end up parting ways and actually have a constructive and productive relationship for many years to come,” he said.
Dr Kidd said employees leaving a workplace “under a cloud” was not the best outcome, and so their GP may help assist them with navigating a way forward in their current job.
“Having said that, I’ve got a number of patients who are severely damaged by a process of fairly systemic and systematic bullying and harassment and denigration and alienation. When you see someone who is really, really sick like that, it’s quite obvious that a path to mediation is not in the best interest of the patient,” he said.
He urged employers struggling to deal with a “difficult” employee not to blame the worker but to try and identify the root cause of the problem.
“Stop and think ‘why is this employee being difficult?’… and maybe actually initiate a process of mediation,” said Dr Kidd.
“Get a better understanding of what is going on for the employee and what the employee might be perceiving as the problem.
“Employers could certainly step up to the plate and do a lot more earlier on to circumvent difficulties.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.