‘Mental health days’ or fun-in-the-sun days?

Is it appropriate to take a sick day when not physically sick?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

The warm weather appears to be finally returning after a long and icy winter across Canada, and thoughts of spring and summer bring smiles to many a face.

As the sun warms the land and our bones, for many the prospect of heading to work inside while the outside world is so full of promise is not fun. And indeed, the chance to enjoy the beautiful weather in the summer is what many workers use a good chunk of their vacation days for. But for some who don’t have enough vacation time or have it already spoken for, there might be the temptation to call in sick when, in fact, they’re quite well.

Some might argue an employee taking a sick day here and there when she’s not really physically sick might not necessarily be a bad thing. Employers and authorities, such as workers’ compensation boards, are recognizing the significance of stress and mental illness in the health of workers, and it’s becoming more common for people to take a day off as a “mental health day” that recharges their batteries and ultimately helps them do their jobs better. The question is, should a “mental health day” come at the worker’s expense (by having her use a vacation day) the employer’s (as a paid sick day)?

There are many examples of workers who abuse their sick leave and take paid sick days when they really just want a day off and should be using vacation days. Many employers guard against this by implementing attendance management programs that monitor the number of sick days employees take and require proof of illness, such as doctor’s notes for sick leave. Often, there are a set number of paid sick days and, if a worker exceeds that number, any subsequent sick days are unpaid and a disciplinary process is begun that could ultimately lead to dismissal if there is no improvement.

Sick leave can be abused for different reasons; not just because a worker wants a day off. Recently, the City of San Francisco experienced a drop in transit service because a large proportion of operators called in sick after the union rejected a contract proposal from the city, as a sort of protest. Over the next couple of days, a few more operators came into work but service was still reduced due to an extraordinary number of employees still calling in sick. The city filed a complaint with labour regulators over what many saw as an illegal strike and unfair labour practices by the union.

How much does abuse of sick leave by workers affect the reasonableness of taking sick days as down time? Some employers might be fine with allowing a “mental health day” now and then, as long as it doesn’t hinder business, but is it possible to distinguish it from a worker taking a sick day just because she doesn’t want to work, in circumstances where it should be a vacation day? For attendance management purposes, how should an employer treat such situations?

Like many things in employment law, it could come down to the unique circumstances on a case-by-case basis. A good employee who doesn’t take many sick days might be allowed more leniency when it comes to taking a “mental health day” as a paid sick day instead of vacation, where an employee on shakier ground who has taken several sick days might be under more scrutiny. And an employee in the latter circumstances should probably expect a reasonable person wouldn’t consider it appropriate to just take a paid sick day when not really sick — just to enjoy the sunshine.

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