The value of doctor’s notes

Are they a waste of time and resources or a valuable attendance management tool?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Employers are often on guard when it comes to employees taking sick days. Many have attendance management programs in place, so if an employee seems to be off sick a little too much, the employer has a process to follow that can coach or discipline the employee to try to find a solution.

Sometimes, as part of that process, the employer can require a doctor’s note to validate absences. Some employers require a note for any absence, regardless of how many sick days the employee has already used, while some have a set number of sick days for employees to use each year and if an employee maxes out, she must use vacation days or face not getting paid for the day off sick.

It makes sense that employers want to make sure employees who call in sick are legitimately ill. Too many false sick days can hurt productivity and the bottom line, not to mention put extra stress on other workers who have to cover for the missing employee or managers who have to find replacements. And, odds are, a worker who calls in sick too much or falsifies her sick leave is probably not a great worker to begin with.

But are doctor’s notes truly an effective tool in managing and policing sick leave? Last year, Scott Wooder, president of the Ontario Medical Association, made news when he recommended employers stop requiring doctor’s notes from ill employees and instead tell employees just to stay home. He argued having people make appointments just to get doctor’s notes took up valuable time for doctors and risked spreading illness in cases where employees had something contagious, like the flu.

This view was recently supported by an online posting on Reddit showing a letter from a doctor to an employer saying it was a waste of time and taxpayers’ money for the employee to see the doctor just for a note. The note made the point that the doctor only followed the employee’s claim of having a cold and couldn’t test for it, so it came down to the employer trusting the employee anyway.

From what I’ve seen in cases dealing with illness and disability, it’s pretty common for a doctor to see someone who needs a note, listen to the patient’s description of her condition, and simply go along with what the patient says. In cases of simple illness such as colds or the flu, what else can the doctor really do, particularly when the doctor probably has a lot of other people to see that day?

So if the patient is lying about or exaggerating symptoms, the doctor probably doesn’t care and will write the note, making it not much useful to the employer in determining if the employee really is sick enough to stay home from work.

And is it worth it to tie up medical resources or risk spreading illness for something as simple as a note with dubious value? It makes sense when an employee is on extended sick leave or claims accommodation for a disability for an employer to require medical documentation to determine when an employee might return to work or what accommodation is needed. But what is the value of a doctor’s note in validating a sick day? On the other hand, are there other ways that can be more effective in policing sick leave use and ensuring employees aren’t abusing the system? 

Are they a waste of time and resource, or a valuable attendance management tool?

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