Supporting employees in denial of health issues

Like any good employer, there may be times when you firmly believe that an employee may have a health issue due to certain symptoms that they are displaying. Having approached them tactfully, they are clearly in denial of health issues or any medical problem. What should you do now?


There can be many visual clues that suggest an employee is not in good health. These include obvious signs of physical discomfort, personality changes, poor concentration or having episodes of zoning out for short periods. But you may tactfully broach the subject only to have the employee brush you off. This puts you in a tricky position. Do you risk annoying the employee by pushing the point or step back and do nothing further – what’s the right course of action to take?

Duty of care

Even though you may feel that the employee is old enough to be responsible for their own health, all employers have a duty of care towards their staff. This requires you to take “all reasonable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare” of your employees. Your duty isn’t limited to physical health but also to their mental health and wellbeing. It covers problems that may not be caused directly by work too.

What’s less well-known are the statutory duties placed on employees. Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 says that they: (1) must take reasonable care for their own health and safety and others who their activities could affect; and (2) need to comply with any policies or procedures that you introduce to help fulfil your own legal duties. This means co-operating with you to discover if there’s a serious health problem; not just for their benefit but for any negative impact it could have on others.

Steps to take

So, with this in mind, if the employee still shows signs of ill health after a few more days, arrange to have an informal meeting with them. This time, your tone needs to be more formal. Outline what symptoms have been witnessed and when. If it’s having a negative impact on their work, give clear examples, such as being far less productive than usual, forgetting tasks or not contributing to meetings in their normal way. There may also be evidence of personality changes that are starting to disrupt working relationships.

Tip 1 – Try to link your concerns to health and/or safety if possible. If the employee undertakes a safety-critical role, e.g. machinery operator, point out the potential problems. The same principle applies if their position is high pressure or demanding in some way.

Tip 2 – Whilst this is a slightly more formal discussion, you should still handle it sensitively. Deep down, the employee may know something isn’t right but has been reluctant or too scared to seek help.

The desired outcome for all parties is that the employee agrees to see their GP as soon as possible. A gentle reminder of their own legal duties under s.7 may help.

Tip – If they refuse, or don’t actually go, politely point out that you may have to take further action without the benefit of medical opinion, if the situation doesn’t change, e.g. if their performance is being affected this could be disciplinary action for poor performance that has no valid explanation.

If the employee’s health presents a health and safety risk to themselves or to others you have the right to send them home on full pay but take care – it is important to manage such a situation carefully and sensitively.

So where do you start…

Knowing what to put, how to lay the information out and tracking how to keep your policies and procedures up to date (legally) can feel like stepping into a minefield. To protect your business (and your sanity!) don’t wait until matters arise to figure it out. In this example, the contents of the communication that needs to go out to the employee is covered in our Online HR Toolkit.

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