Talking to your employer about illness

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 sick leave when you cannot work because of a personal illness or injury (including stress or an illness related to a pregnancy).

There are 2 types of sick leave: paid sick leave and unpaid sick leave.

Paid sick leave: You will get 10 days paid sick leave per year if you are in full-time employment, and a pro-rata (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. Casual employees are not entitled to any paid sick leave.

Unpaid sick leave: 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).

Can I be sacked for taking sick leave?

If you are away for more than 3 months, you cannot be sacked if you have 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 is unreasonable. For more information, visit the Fair Work Ombudsman website.

If you need advice, speak to the Fair Work Ombudsman 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 I tell my 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.

Some people worry about talking to their employer, for example, if they have an illness they do not want other people to know about. 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. There are advantages in telling your employer.

  • They can put changes in place to help you stay at work.
  • If your illness impacts your work, it will not 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 will not 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.