82

I have a team member who is performing well, but has regular sick days (~1-5 a month). I fully trust him and if he needs those days, there is a valid reason; he follows all the company policies for sick days, so from the HR perspective there is no problem.

Since a few months I am responsible for 1:1 feedback meetings and this is a subject I am quite uncertain about.

Should I approach his sick days in the feedback meeting? If yes, how can I approach such a sensitive subject?

I don't want to give him the feeling that I don't believe him. I am just worried about the health of a good employee and team member. My goal would be to find the steps needed, to make the workers health better.

Note: In my role as scrum master I am not "above" him in the company hierarchy, but I am responsible that the team is doing well.

  • 5
    "he follows all the company policies for sick days, so from the HR perspective there is no problem." Are you really sure about that? If we average your "1 - 5 a month" estimate we're talking about a couple dozen sick days a year. I've never known an employer who was that generous, unless we're talking about unpaid sick days, or something like FMLA or short term disability. – dwizum Jun 11 at 13:29
  • I generally do agree that this isn't a "problem" in anyway but maybe ask your colleague if he/she has a problem with the amount of sick days? He/She might feel guilty for missing more days than others and doesn't take enough time off to properly get healthy and therefor get sick again faster (causing subsequently to have more sick days). Just ensure your colleague that they are a good employee and team member and they deserve their sick days and good health. – GittingGud Jun 12 at 6:18
  • 2
    and watch out because digging that issue may lead to problems like this workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/129526/… – Marian Paździoch Jun 12 at 8:10
  • @dwizum: If you suffer from e.g. migraines, that sound likes a perfectly normal amount of sick days. – Bjarke Freund-Hansen Jul 3 at 8:20

11 Answers 11

188

He follows all the company policies for sick days, so from the HR perspective there is no problem.

Then there's no problem that needs resolving.

Should I approach his sick days in the feedback meeting?

No. If the employee is complying with the company sick leave policy then there isn't anything you need or should do.

While I understand that you may be genuinely concerned about his health, to be perfectly blunt it isn't any of your business. Additionally, prying into his personal health issues may be an issue that opens the company up to some legal jeopardy. If you have a relationship with this person outside of work then you might consider approaching the subject outside of work, but if you don't then it would be inappropriate and likely illegal to approach this matter in a work context.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Jun 13 at 16:56
  • He can even assure this employee further that his work is excellent, and he has nothing to worry about being sick. (Some people feel so much guilt with taking sick leave and start to worry about getting fired). – VarunAgw Jun 13 at 20:21
24

If yes, how can I approach such a sensible subject?

First, there is no harm in telling him he's doing it right as far as company policies are concerned. He's following protocol and you like that.

Second, make sure the work is done nevertheless, i.e. his work is documented, somebody else can stand in for him and pick up where he left. If that works well, make sure you tell him, if it does not, come up with some actionable items for him to do so his sickness impacts the office less.

And last but no least, just ask him if the company can do anything to accommodate him. Ergonomic chair so he has less back pain? Window shades so his migraine is not that bad? Better ventilation of his offices? Another dietary choice in the office canteen? You'll never know until you ask him, so just do.

The point is, do not focus on the fact he is sick often, focus on what to do to make work better when he is sick.

  • 3
    Can anybody shed some light why this was downvoted? – nvoigt Jun 11 at 16:14
  • 9
    Because it is horrible, horrible advice. There are ways to deal with employees who have a high number of sick days, but per the OP the employee is doing everything correctly. Asking employees health-related questions is a huge legal minefield and can place an employer at risk. I'm recovering from a severe injury, and I keep my manager informed as I see fit. But it's none of my MANAGER'S business and if I were asked prying questions, I'd speak up. As a side note, often employees are less than open because there is a problem with the relationship. So, that's a clue. – Julie in Austin Jun 11 at 21:55
  • 27
    @JulieinAustin Since when is "Can I do anything to make your life easier at work" a prying question? Especially when "No, sorry" is a perfectly fine and accepted answer? Is my text easy to misunderstand as me actually asking those sentences with question marks? Those are questions in the context of this answer for the reader, not quotes to reiterate to the employee. The question is "Can I do anything to accommodate you" (first sentence of my paragraph). Matter of fact that is a legal necessity if the sick days stem from a disability or chronic condition anyway. – nvoigt Jun 12 at 5:12
  • 7
    I completely agree with nvoigt here. Especially in larger companies in Germany they'll be happy to accommodate special needs, and might even be able to work with the employee's health insurance on ergonomic equipment. Starting this dialogue is a good thing. In fact, many companies nowadays have rules about offering part-time work and other things to make the life of employees that are off sick often easier. Not everyone is slacking off. Not going to work for a day or two every two weeks because of migraines is very common in Germany and totally legit. – simbabque Jun 12 at 12:13
  • 1
    It could even be argued that failing to make accommodations for an employee when one has at very least been put on enquiry that their health may require them could also open the employer up to potential claims. Best done as part of a regular workplace H&S assessment than a feedback meeting, however. – eggyal Jun 13 at 20:23
17

IMPORTANT: DO NOT ENGAGE

unless you have planned your approach thoroughly with HR and HR has fully reviewed and approved your engagement plan. In writing !

In most countries any type of medical information is considered highly confidential and is extremely well protected. In the US that's governed by HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996)

https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/index.html

Even talking to an employee about medical issues can be reason for a complaint and can get the company (and by proxy you, as the initiator) in serious legal trouble. HR has been trained to navigate that regulatory minefield, so you need them to bless anything you do and you want a paper trail to prove it.

This being said, it's unclear why you would do this in the first place. Making their health better is a laudable goal, but it's not your job and you don't have anywhere enough information to have an opinion and you are not a medical professional. If they need any type of accommodation (medical leave, special gear, reduced hours), everyone should just follow the stated company policy.

  • 5
    Just a minor nit -- this isn't a HIPPA issue as the OP isn't a medical provider. It's only a HIPPA issue if there is some specific medical information involved and that was gained in a not-so-HIPPA-compliant manner. It is a horrible idea and there's a reason managers are trained to be managers. The OP was clearly not trained to be a manager. – Julie in Austin Jun 11 at 21:54
  • 2
    @MSalters - Correct, but saying "HIPPA" might lead someone to say "That's not HIPPA, because I'm not a doctor, so I can do it." I've been a manger or supervisor off and on for about 27 or 28 years. What the OP wants to do is just all different kinds of WRONG. Our best advice to the OP is "let HR handle it." – Julie in Austin Jun 11 at 22:56
  • 7
    Everyone's writing HIPPA here, but it's really called HIPAA – Karsten Koop Jun 12 at 7:46
  • 17
    The "germany" tag is a strong indication the US laws don't apply. – Tom Jun 12 at 9:24
  • 6
    @Tom In fairness, that tag was added only a few hours ago, long after this answer was posted. – a CVn Jun 12 at 11:00
13

Posting using a throwaway account so I can be a little more candid.

Between my chronic migraines, my sleep disorder, some other fatigue-causing conditions, and a family member's serious medical condition, I tend to max out my sick days. I almost always wake up in pain, some days worse than others, so it can take me a while to get going, but if I take it slowly, my pain is usually minimal by the time I get to work. I come in about a half hour after my peers on good days, and an hour and a half on bad days, but I manage 40-45 hours per week one way or another by staying after everyone else has left. I take 1-2 sick days per month just for chronic conditions, plus when I catch a regular cold or something, it usually takes me a day or two longer than my peers to recover.

All that being said, when I need some sort of accommodation, I ask for it. My scrum master actually is more aware of my needs than my manager, because my scrum master schedules most of the meetings I attend. I ask for fewer early-morning meetings. When my pain is bad at work, I seek less mentally-challenging tasks for a couple hours. I make arrangements for meetings I won't be able to attend. I don't take on assignments that would be problematic for my shifted schedule. I arrange my tasks so I have things I can work independently in the evenings. I sit down for our standup meetings. I ask for breaks or adjournments when meetings get too long or frequent. I also employ a number of personal productivity 'hacks' that make it easier to keep my concentration/motivation when I am in various levels of pain.

My point is, if your colleague is asking for accommodations like that, do your best to achieve them, even if you don't understand the reasons. If he isn't asking for accommodations, most likely he doesn't need them. I share with my colleagues what they need to know, plus some because I spend a lot of time with them and consider them friends. Those who don't need to know, I don't tell, because I don't like the pity. My scrum team could probably guess this was me from what I've written, but other teams I work less closely with probably couldn't.

If he's more the stoic type, you can still help by being more observant. If he looks like he could use a break during a meeting you're running, offer a break to the group. If he's struggling one day to complete something you thought should be faster, offer to pair program or whatever. If some knowledge transfer needs to happen in order to better accommodate unexpected absences, brainstorm some ways to do that in your retrospectives. I consider that sort of thing just normal scrum master duties. You don't have to make it explicitly about health.

  • 9
    "If he isn't asking for accommodations, most likely he doesn't need them." I really like your answer, but I am doubtful about this phrase. I've got a particular disability with many symptoms, both mental and psysical. In the past I have nearly always refused to ask for accommodations, but I have accepted them if offered. The mental part of my disability makes certain interactions difficult, which may be related to the behaviour, but this may also spark from stubbornness. I'm probably not the only one who is stubborn, but I can also get by with just the safety-net I set up and a rare sick day. – Cyonis Jun 12 at 13:59
  • "If he isn't asking for accommodations, most likely he doesn't need them" - Some may not ask for accommodations because they assume they'd need to go into uncomfortable details about their condition to get accommodations or they're afraid of being treated differently due to their condition (even if this fear is irrational or being treated differently would be illegal). – Dukeling Jun 14 at 15:07
  • @Cyonis As someone with a disability, I understand where you're coming from. Sometimes it can be difficult to advocate for yourself. But most countries have laws around this because it's too easy for companies to abuse the information attained under the guise of "we're just trying to help". – industry7 Jun 14 at 15:51
  • @Dukeling On the flip side, you don't even know if this person has a disability or any kind of chronic illness. Parents often take sick days when their kids are sick, and kids get sick ALL the time. I mean if you offer them some kind of accommodation on the assumption that they're disabled, and they accept b/c... why wouldn't they accept free help from the company, and then it turns out they're not disabled and on the hook paying for this accommodation for no reason. – industry7 Jun 14 at 16:02
  • No matter how much the company insists "everything is fine, you're not in trouble", if I'm following all the proper policies and procedures and the company still comes to me with the approach that there is a problem that needs to be fixed... well clearly that tells me that the company thinks I'm a problem and I would be looking for a new job. Bottom line for me, if everything were fine, the company would not feel the need to bring it up. – industry7 Jun 14 at 16:11
12

Since you are located in Germany, information about US laws is misleading at best.

According to German employee protection laws, you can actually fire an employee for being constantly sick under very strict conditions none of which I see in this case (in short, a negative medical prognosis is vital, i.e. a doctor stating that it's going to get worse, not better).

There is nothing in the law that I recall which outright prohibits speaking about this topic, but you are definitely entering a minefield.

At the same time, there is a small chance that the medical problems might be related to his work, maybe caused by stress or an unhealthy work environment or something you are not even aware of (e.g. mobbing). In such a case not asking could be problematic as well as you have a duty of care for your workers.

The first thing you should do is discuss this question with HR and possibly involve the works council (Betriebsrat) as well, if there is one. IMHO your best approach would be to tell him that you noticed he is sick at times, reassure him that HR has no complaint about it and that you bring the topic up because you are worried if it might be related to the job and if he wants to talk about it so you have a chance to make any changes that might improve the work environment for him. Explicitly offer him that if he doesn't want to talk about it, that is fine as well, but you want him to know that if it is work related in any way, you will be happy to hear about it - now or later - so that you can look into it.

You can also pick up the advice from Chronic Pain Sufferer and tell him that even if he doesn't want to talk about the sick days, if he is suffering from something chronic, you don't need to know any details, but he can tell you whatever accommodations you could do that would make his life easier.


Essentially, the idea is to approach this as an opportunity to support a person who might be having a difficult time and really doesn't need more trouble - but would be thankful for any support.

Do not under any circumstances approach this topic without the support of HR, and I strongly propose involving the workers council as well.

  • Yes - this seems to be the only answer (so far) that addresses the specific rules in Germany about this area. – sleske Jun 13 at 10:04
  • This is the best answer specifically because it addresses that the employee might need extra support. A good manager should approach from the angle of "I don't care what the illness is, I just want to know if there is anything the company can do to support the employee". – Qwerky Jun 14 at 11:26
6

There are a lot of answers which are supporting you in your desire to communicate your concern to the employee. All of those answers are seriously wrong, at least according to US Labor Law, and so far as I can tell, German (where the OP is located) labor law.

Persons with a supervisory relationship over other co-workers must abide by both the policies of the employer, and the laws where they are located. There are fewer rules for peers, but it is still best that certain matters -- such as illness and leave -- be left to whoever is handling Human Resources.

There are many legal reasons why it is inappropriate to engage a direct report on their health conditions, and there are also some trust and ethics reasons. I've had direct reports lose loved ones (family members, spouses, parents) and that required a very delicate touch. Engaging an employee about their health condition or sick leave usage can be seen by the employee as pressuring them to do something they aren't required to do.

If the employee is already working with HR, HR is already aware of any special accommodations which might be needed. Most developed Western countries have laws which govern "workplace accommodations", such as the Americans With Disabilities Act here in the States.

That said, it is possible that HR may not be fully aware of what sorts of accommodations might be made. At that point, the employee's supervisor may want to approach HR and offer to help the employee. But the supervisor doing the offering needs to be properly versed in how to handle such things, and it doesn't appear that the OP is.

  • 5
    Do you have any experience with HR helping in these matters? My experience on both sides of the table (manager or sick person) is that HR is concerned with following policy and minimum effort. They might sit in a building 2 hours by car away and are interested that the doctors notes line up with their punch clock data. Your manager on the other hand is right there and can make all the little things happen that will make life easier. Move meetings, move your desk, get you a new chair, tell people to leave the blinds down on sunny days. – nvoigt Jun 12 at 5:27
  • 1
    Talking to HR for/with sickness issues is to not get fired for it, talking to your manager or SM is to make is easier for you and the team to still get work done. Maybe that's different in the US? – nvoigt Jun 12 at 5:27
  • 4
    There is absolutely no legal problem in confirming to an employee that he is doing fine policy wise and asking if you can do anything in addition to support them. – eckes Jun 12 at 12:21
  • 1
    The reason it is a horrible idea for a non-managerial supervisor ("scrum master") to get involved in anything that is "employment related" (sick days and sick day policy is 100% "employment related") is the lack of training and the asymmetry in power. That @nvoigt goes back to "manager", when the question was about "Scrum Master" indicates that it really is the responsibility of the MANAGER. See also the "entering a minefield" and "not without HR" answer. People who've been managers know this is a disaster for the untrained and ALWAYS get HR involved. – Julie in Austin Jun 14 at 1:17
  • I go "back" to manager, because that is my personal experience. I have not been a Scrum Master and had this talk, because there was no person with that many sick days in my team. – nvoigt Jun 14 at 6:30
1

As others have said:

Do not ask them about their sick leave

Since you seem genuinely concerned, I think you can ask them if anything can be done to improve their working environment.

  1. More ergonomic chair, desk, monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc.
  2. Change of location (nearer to a window or plant, further from the bathroom or kitchen, etc.)
  3. Change the cleaning supplies used in the office.
  4. Less distractions throughout the day.
  5. WFH arrangements, or more flexible working hours.

These things can all potentially improve an employee's physical and mental health. But please note, and this is important, do not imply in any way that you are asking these questions because of their sick leave.

These are questions you could and should ask of all your team members. If this employee says there's no improvement you can make, you'll need to assume that they are happy with their current arrangement and you don't need to take any more action.

0

It's completely appropriate to ask him about this. 1-5 days is 1 work week so it makes sense that it is mentioned.

I agree with Sourav that this should be mentioned outside the 1:1 - especially if your main concern is the employee's health and you want to approach in a friendly manner.

  • 1
    If the time off is an earned benefit, the employee has every right to use it and the company should plan for it to be used. – Blrfl Jun 11 at 13:01
  • 10
    @Blrfl and that's one difference in European culture vs. American culture. Most people in most European country (and most laws) consider sick days a given, not a benefit. You don't need to "earn" it, you don't get them for good work, you get them because you're a human that might be sick at some times. Whereas anything considered a benefit is an attractor, a nice little icing on the cake, something the company could, in principle, decide not to provide at any time (within limits of existing contracts and so on). – Frank Hopkins Jun 11 at 19:05
  • 2
    Note that the OP isn't the line manager, rather a Scrum Master, so it probably isn't appropriate. – Gwyn Evans Jun 11 at 20:10
  • 1
    @rath - The difference between "line manager" and "leader" is usually very little with labor law. People who have supervisory responsibility, with the ability to assign work, and perform appraisals, tend to be more restricted in what they can do than "peers". The first lesson learned when becoming a proper leader is "all employee problems are run past Human Resources before saying or doing anything." – Julie in Austin Jun 11 at 22:18
  • 4
    @Blrfl Yes benefits are compensation. Sick days aren't compensation. I have never seen them listed as "benefits" within Europe. The benefits section contains stuff like free food and maybe a private pension plan on top of any state pension plan. But as googling indicates it's accepted as a "employee benefit" at the very least in the US, perhaps also in the UK though they also should have a more "European/socialist" regulation on it (which basically invalidates the term semantically). Given that, I can only say - Oh boy, you guys (aka US, perhaps EN workforce) really lost that mind game. – Frank Hopkins Jun 12 at 0:07
0

A discussion with him would be nice, in a neutral place. Remind him that you fully trust him and his work so far has been excellent. Then tell him that you're a bit worried about all of the sick leaves.

I wouldn't ask about the reason behind all of the sick leaves, I'd just tell him that if he needs to talk, you're there for him.

Hopefully, he'll explain why. Otherwise, he'll know he can count on you if needed be.

0

This may be something to bear in mind. Some HR departments use the Bradford Factor to monitor their employees' use of sick leave. This is B = S x S x D, where in any given period, usually 1 year, D is the total number of days off, and S is the number of 'spells' of absence.

By using this formula, 10 days off counts as 10 points if taken in a single block, and 1000 points if taken as 10 individual days. This is therefore very forgiving of infrequent major incidents, and penalises frequent short absences heavily.

The two problems with the Bradford factor is that it doesn't take account of somebody with a genuine medical need for regular short absences, and some HR departments use it as a very blunt instrument to escalate warnings and other sanctions to employees.

If your colleague has been taking these absences long enough to get a 'high score', and HR haven't come down on him like a ton of bricks, then you can assume they are working with him sympathetically and appropriately.

As scrum master, you do have a need to understand his availability. If his absences have led to deadlines being missed in the past, then it would be appropriate to explore whether these are planned or unplanned, whether they are likely to continue, and whether they can scheduled around or otherwise handled.

-2

You don't need a 1:1 meeting to express concern and offer help (if needed) for someone's medical condition. Don't bring it up in the formal 1:1 meeting.

No need to feel or make the situation awkward, a friendly causal next-to-the-water-cooler chat will do just fine.

As you say:

This employee follows all the company policies for sick days, so from the HR perspective there is no problem.

and

I am just worried about the health of a good employee and team member. My goal would be to find the steps needed, to make the situation better.

Just walk up to them and talk, mention that you noticed the regularity of the leaves and is worried about his health conditions. Also mention you are willing to offer any help if they need to make the situation better.

  • 11
    I strongly disagree. In most countries this can get you in serious legal trouble since any type of medical information is highly protected and regulated. Just asking about is, can be cause for a justified complaint. If you absolutely need to know, work through HR who should be up to date on the legal stuff and what you can and can't do. – Hilmar Jun 11 at 12:12
  • @Hilmar I agree you shouldn't ask however this answer doesn't seem to be suggesting it (at least not explicitly, maybe implicitly). This seems to be more akin to "Notice you have been out sick. I hope you are doing well. Let me know if you need anything from me." Surely something like that isn't illegal? – Captain Man Jun 11 at 20:48
  • 2
    No. And again, managers are trained in both the company policy for handling this kind of issue and what is legally permitted. The only time a manager or supervisor should say anything at all is when a health condition is affecting others. Like, "Bob, you have a cold and need to go home." – Julie in Austin Jun 11 at 22:00

protected by Mister Positive Jun 12 at 11:42

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.