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Back to work during your sick leave

Even though you’re still not fully recovered, you want to go back to work. Is that wise? Being sick is no nice. And certainly not if you just started in a new job. The temptation is great to go back to work before the end of your sick leave.

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“I was recently hired as a production assistant in a theatre company, a job that fits me like a glove. We are working to stage a première, and now I am down with a bad cold. Talk about bad timing! Since no one can take over all of my duties, I am afraid that everything will fall apart. I feel a little better now, but my medical certificate runs until the day after tomorrow. Is it a good idea to go back to work already?” (Annelien, Ghent)

Sick means sick

A physician won’t write out a certificate of absence just like that. He or she takes into account the nature of your illness and the time you need to recover. If you cut short your recovery, the risk of relapse increases. There is also a risk that you might ‘infect’ your colleagues. It is therefore advisable for you to remain at home to prevent the whole department from falling ill the following week.

An employer cannot force you to work while you are on sick leave. But conversely, if you show up without notice, this has legal consequences for both you and your boss. Your symptoms or the medication you are taking can affect your work performance, and may cause you to make mistakes as a result. Or, even worse, you might cause an accident at the office or on the way there. Since you should have been at home, this won’t be deemed to be a work accident. Your employer might even invoke “reckless behaviour”, which means you will bear full liability. The employer therefore has the option to have you examined by a company doctor to check that you actually are able to perform the contractually stipulated tasks. You can refuse such an examination, but in doing so you might give the wrong impression.


So, what you should do is get proper advice. In the first place, from your general practitioner (GP), with whom you would normally have developed a relationship based on trust. Perhaps a one week leave instead of ten working days is enough for you? Above all, common sense should prevail.
A chat with your boss may also prove very enlightening. Maybe you can perform some of your tasks from home. Or, if you feel fully recovered, all the paperwork can be sorted out to make sure you can get back to work without delay, and without any legal risks for either of you.