The doctor’s note is on life support – and it’s time to pull the plug

Ontario moves to ban notes in all but extreme cases of sick leave abuse

The days of asking every worker for a sick note when they miss a day’s work are coming to an end.

The Ontario government has announced plans to eliminate the doctor’s note as a tool in the employer’s arsenal to combat absenteeism. As part of major reforms to workplace legislation, the province is going to ban managers from asking for one. The lone exception will be for repeat offenders — workers who take more than 10 sick days in a year.

To which we can only say — albeit it a little reluctantly — it’s probably time.

Employers have relied on the doctor’s note for decades to confirm the employee truly was sick. But there’s a major flaw in this thinking, which Scott Wooder, president of the Ontario Medical Association, outlined in an exclusive op-ed he wrote in 2014 for Canadian HR Reporter.

Doctors rarely, if ever, reject a request from a patient for a sick note.

“In 28 years, I’ve rarely denied anyone a sick note,” the doctor wrote. “If a patient says they’ve been vomiting or have a sore throat or otherwise feel terrible, of course I take them at their word.”

He estimated he sees, on average, two patients per day who have come to his office solely for the purpose of documenting a sick day for their employer — that’s an incredible waste of health-care time and money.

In Alberta, a fed-up doctor wrote the following note — which went viral after being posted on Reddit.

“[First name] has had, by their own report, a cold today and sensibly stayed home from work rather than spreading this to his colleagues/customers. I have no test for the common cold and therefore believe him/her, however you feel his time and mine should be wasted by making him sit in the walk-in clinic for hours and me spending time writing a sick note that I could be spending on people who genuinely need my attention. Please reconsider your policy on this — there are surely better ways of wasting your tax dollars.”

More pleas have come from across the country. Last year, Dave Gaudreau, an NDP backbencher in Manitoba, called for a provincial law to forbid “bosses from requesting sick notes until a worker has missed at least seven days in a calendar year,” according to a post on Canadian HR Reporter.

Not surprisingly, labour groups are on board when it comes to making the notes extinct. Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), recently called on that province to ban sick notes. He chided mostly non-union workplaces that were using the notes as a disincentive for employees to stay home and get better.

Employers, though, are understandably wary of losing this tool. Forcing an employee to get a doctor’s note is exactly what the AFL said it is — a disincentive. Sick days, after all, are not an entitlement. If you have seven paid sick days as part of your collective agreement or your employment contract, they shouldn’t be viewed as days which need to be taken. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how some employees view them – an extension of their paid vacation time. Use ’em or lose ’em. To curtail abuse, some employers asked for proof — and the only way to get it was to ask an independent third party.

But let’s not forget that most employees don’t max out their sick days. And, frankly, managers shouldn’t be encouraging employees to come in when they’re sick anyway. Not only are they not as productive, but they’re also potentially contagious. Forcing the same sick employee to trudge to a doctor’s office, taking scarce time from a health-care provider and also potentially making other people in the waiting room sick in the process, doesn’t really serve anyone well.

Ontario recognizes that employers still need to rely on doctor’s notes, and will still allow them for absences in excess of 10 days in one year. That’s a nice round number, even if it’s a little too high. Something in the range of seven would be more preferable.

We put a lot of trust in our employees to make the right decisions for the business on a regular basis. Trust is a crucial part of employee engagement, after all. So employers need to relax and trust that staff are being honest when they call in to say they’re sick. Employers, at least in Ontario, will have to turn a blind eye — unless the worker truly starts abusing sick days.

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