Why do sick people go to work?

Study finds even during pandemic, employees were determined to keep working

Why do sick people go to work?

Before the pandemic, about half (51 per cent) of Canadians said they would go into work if they woke up sick. Why? The top reason was because they wouldn’t get paid.

But even with the public health orders during the pandemic, this figure didn’t change all that much: 39 per cent said they went into the workplace while feeling ill.

That’s according to a study — done by the Future Skills Centre (FSC) — that heard from 5,913 Canadians in June 2021.

While various governments, both provincial and federal, have legislated varying degrees of paid coverage for workers, it’s workplace culture that plays a big role, says Wendy Cukier, founder of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University and academic research lead at FSC in Toronto.

“Even people who had benefits and could stay home, at least half of them chose not to,” she says.

“We have embedded in many of our workplaces the assumption that if you stay home because you’re sick, you are shirking your responsibilities as opposed to the notion that you stay home because you won’t make everybody else in the office sick.”

Read more: As of Jan. 1, 2022, employees in British Columbia now have access to paid sick leave as a minimum employment standard.

Even during the pandemic, culture’s pervasiveness remains stubbornly strong, says Cukier.

“One would expect that with COVID, people are being a little more cautious… where the public health directions are: ‘You feel sick, you stay home.’”

Workplace culture is “probably one of the deciding factors in whether or not someone’s going to come in sick or not,” says Andrew James Caldwell, HR advisory manager at Peninsula Canada in Toronto.

“If your employer is one of those individuals who questions you calling in sick all the time or calling in sick once… [and] you’re already exhausted, you’re already tired, why put yourself through more exhaustion, more tiredness, [so] you say, ‘Fine, I will show up to work, they’ll deal with in when I’m there.’”

Culture change

When asked why they would go in to work while sick pre-pandemic, 46 per cent of respondents said others depended on their work and they wouldn’t want to let them down. Thirty-three per cent also said they didn’t want to get caught behind on work, along with feeling pressured by their managers (18 per cent) and not wanting others to feel they couldn’t handle their jobs (15 per cent).

“That does imply that a substantial proportion of people do have a very deep sense of duty associated with their work that supersedes their concern for their own wellbeing or, frankly, their colleagues. Tone from the top: if you see that your leaders are not taking time off when they’re sick, that can reinforce the notion that you’re expected to drag yourself to work even if you’re on death’s door,” says Cukier.

Read more: The federal government has passed legislation allowing 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated employees.

But trying to change that culture is easier said than done, according to Caldwell.

“It is a huge undertaking and it’s one that should not be taken lightly because you don’t want to rush in and find yourself changing the culture into something that you didn’t want in the first place. You look at numerous factors: there’s natural attrition, where some people leave and you get new blood coming in under a new culture that you’re trying to develop, and those who aren’t coming into that new culture will find themselves leaving.”

 And this change should come from leadership, or it won’t be successful, he says.

“If the managers take that approach and it’s top-down, it does go towards changing that culture, it does showcase that you’re not going to be penalized for calling in sick.”

Policy document crucial

Instituting paid time off is an important way to manage sick time, says Cukier.

“The most important policy is having paid sick leave and then it’s a question of communicating, whether HR does it or whether it’s part of discussions around healthy workplaces and what healthy workplaces look like.”

Once that is in place, talking about the key aspects of the policy, and why it’s needed, are also important, she says.

“Leaders can have discussions with people and make sure that it’s understood that if you’re sick, you should stay home.”

A solid sick-leave policy document should be created should look at factors such as how it will be applied, how managers should interact with team members who call in sick, and how to track sick time, says Caldwell.

“For HR, policy is step one; then application of that policy is step two; and then working with the managers on how to do that process and how to understand that policy is step three,” he says.

“The policy is a great place to showcase that ‘We are a company that understands people get sick, we’re a company that respects that people might get sick, so here’s how we are going to go above and beyond the minimum.’”

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