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Taking an extra sick day: Helpful or harmful to productivity?

Employees that have used up all their sick days feel compelled to come to work ill — and that’s a recipe for a disengaged workforce

By Jeffrey R. Smith (

When it gets late in the year, there can be a problem if some employees have used up their allotment of sick days. Every jurisdiction in Canada sets a certain number of unpaid days off for illness, but many employers allow a certain number of paid sick days over the course of the year. However, if an employee abuses those days or the absences are hurting the business, what is an employer to do?

According to a Statistics Canada survey a couple of years ago, absences by full-time employees due to personal reasons or illness increased from 7.3 days in 1997 to 9.5 days in 2005. This increasing trend can have negative effects on an employer’s productivity and bottom line. But does putting a hard cap on paid sick days benefit productivity?

While a hard cap on paid sick days may discourage employees from calling in sick if they really aren’t, what if an employee has a particularly bad year for illness and uses up her sick days? This may increase the chance of that employee coming in to work when she’s sick so she doesn’t lose any pay, which could spread sickness in the office and hurt morale as well. In such a case, if an employer insists the employee go home, should it be on the hook for paying the employee or can it be considered unpaid leave since paid sick days have been used up?

Of course, if an employee is off work a lot due to illness, the employer may be faced with a legal obligation to accommodate if the illness becomes a disability. In some cases, this may even be better as it could allow an employer to plan around absences or reduced duties of a disabled employee instead of scrambling to cover absences as they come up.

An employer is generally going to be in good shape when justifying paid sick day limits if it has a clear, written policy outlining the limits. But it should keep in mind there could be cases where some flexibility might be beneficial.

Employees who feel they have to come in to work when sick if they’ve used up their sick days are not going to be happy employees, and unhappy employees are not productive employees. If the employer only gives unpaid sick days, a similar situation is more likely to happen because people don’t like to lose money. It’s good for employers to follow employment standards, but if they stick only to the minimums they could be faced with a disengaged, sicker and less productive workforce.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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