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Feeling sick? Stay home, please

Hard caps, attendance awards could incent wrong behaviour

By Todd Humber

Oh, the poor paid sick day.

It’s as maligned as it is necessary. And if you look at 10 different companies, you’ll probably find 10 different policies about the number of days, when it’s OK to use them and whether or not they are bankable.

Well, that third point isn’t up for discussion much anymore. I’ve yet to run into a private sector employer that allows sick days to be banked and cashed out upon retirement and, in the public sector, that benefit is firmly in the cross hairs.

And for good reason. A recent report in the Toronto Star said the Toronto Police Service has withdrawn $53 million more than it has paid into the sick fund since 2002. And it’s paying about $10 million a year in sick pay gratuities for officers who retire or quit. Cops can bank as much as nine months of sick days in a 35-year career.

In an era of government deficits and cutbacks, the public sector’s bankable sick days are an endangered species.

But the quandary over paid sick days goes beyond banking. Employers also struggle with how to handle them.

Some employers set a hard cap on the number of sick days an employee can take per year. It might decide seven is a reasonable number, and refuse to pay for additional time after that.

That’s a decent policy on paper, but it doesn’t always work well in the real world.

Putting a hard cap on the number of paid sick days makes some employees treat them as additional vacation days. I’ve never understood that mentality, but I’ve been in my fair share of workplaces where people will say in November, “I’ve still got four sick days left. I have to use them soon.”

Plus, if an employee hits sick day number eight, some managers will turn a blind eye and not report it to payroll — in hopes of keeping morale up and being the “nice guy.” That can create problems and jealousy in other groups with more rigid supervisors.

It also puts employees, who have had a bad run of colds and influenza, in a position where they might report to work when ill, spreading germs around the office and taking down co-worker after co-worker in their wake.

Rewarding employees for not taking sick days

Some employers put reward programs in place for workers who don’t use sick days. The benefits are obvious — less absenteeism.

One of my good friends works in such a workplace, and takes pride in the fact he has gone his entire tenure at his current employer — more than five years — without taking a single sick day.

It’s not like he hasn’t been sick in those five years, he has just dragged himself in no matter what. There is something laudable about that, but he’s doing it for the money regardless of the consequences to his own health and productivity, and that of his colleagues — and the fact the reward multiplies year after year only makes him more committed to never take a day off ill.

To me, the best sick day policy has always been a bit of a hybrid — though it may be next to impossible to implement in a unionized environment. Don’t put a hard cap on the number of paid days, but have a policy of dealing with workers who go above a certain threshold on a case-by-case basis.

Employees will be less likely to treat them like vacation days, and employers can still deal with suspected malingers.

Employers should encourage staff to stay home when sick. It’s good for that worker’s morale and productivity, and it’s good for their co-workers who won’t be exposed to all the coughing and hacking — only to be faced with the same dilemma when they wake up with a sore throat.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or visit for more information. 

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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