What to do when the sniffles arrive

Paid sick leave can be costly, but forcing workers to decide between getting better or getting paid has its costs as well

What to do when the sniffles arrive

By Jeffrey R. Smith

If you’re not feeling well and fall ill, you probably don’t feel like working. Usually, the best thing you can do when you’re sick is to rest at home rather than go into the office. But can you afford to?

In Canada, there’s no such thing as legislated paid sick leave. Most jurisdictions have some sort of job-protected leave that workers are entitled to use — for example, in Ontario most workers can take up to three days of unpaid leave if they’re sick once they’ve worked for an employer for two consecutive weeks.

There are other types of job-protected leave as well, but employers don’t have to pay employees who take them. Paid sick leave may be provided by employers, but it’s on a voluntary basis.

But if they don’t, is it the right approach? Should there be a legislative minimum for paid sick days? Or is it a good policy for employers to adopt, regardless of what the law says?

Many employers would argue that paid sick days can be too costly and put too much pressure on the bottom line. There’s also the argument that if workers are paid when they’re off sick, they’ll abuse their sick days. To some extent, these views are understandable, but are they reasonable?

While many employers may be worried about absenteeism, in recent years the concept of “presenteeism” as a negative factor for businesses has come to the forefront. Presenteeism refers to circumstances when employees who are sick come to work anyway.

Obviously, if they’re sick, they’re not going to be as productive — possibly to the point where they’re not going to get much done anyway and might as well not be there. In addition, a big concern could be someone who has a communicable illness — such as a cold or the flu — comes to work and infects her co-workers, which could have a bigger and worse impact on a business.

So, if a worker isn’t going to be very productive, could get worse if he comes to work, or could infect others in the workplace, it’s probably best he stay home. But if he risks losing pay by doing so, he’s much more likely to come into work despite the potential consequences.

A 2010 study by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research using data on the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic from the U.S. Centre for Disease Control found that as many as seven million additional people in the U.S. were infected by the virus because of co-workers who came to work already sick with it. The study also estimated that similar patterns were reflected in the number of children infected according to whether their parents had paid sick leave or not — though without hard data on school absences and childcare.

Another study by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research in 2016 comparing Google’s data on influenza trends and information on sick leave mandates in the U.S., found that the introduction of sick leave mandates reduced the incidence of flu-like illnesses by about six per cent across the total population.

What these mean is that sick leave can reduce the overall level of infection from contagious illness — and the amount of time the total workforce could be off sick or have reduced productivity.

On the other hand, there is the concern that workers could abuse sick leave. In January 2019, Canadian HR Reporter reported on a study of 1,103 U.S. workers by O.C. Tanner, an employee recognition firm, that found 31 per cent of respondents admitted to calling in sick when they weren’t actually ill. Instead, they did so either to spend more time with family or just to avoid work.

And abuse of sick days can be costly. A 2013 Conference Board of Canada report found Canadian workers of both the public and private sectors too an average of 9.3 sick days in 2011, costing the economy about $16.6 billion. That’s a good chunk of change that will get the attention of businesses.

However, sick leave abuse can be addressed. If it’s a problem, employers should try to look at why — is it the workplace culture, too much stress being placed on employees, or something else? There are always going to be people who try to game the system, but there are also many people who don’t. There are studies indicating that on average, workers who are provided with a certain small number of paid sick days don’t use them all.

The concept of paid sick days is something that on the surface, may be unattractive to many employers. But in an age where attracting and retaining talent should be a priority, it’s something worth considering. And when it comes to protecting workers’ health and safety, maybe it’s worth considering having an employment standards minimum to help avoid making illnesses more serious and spread among the population.

In the words of Employerline.ca, an HR and employment advice site for Canadian businesses: “For employers, a paid sick leave is beneficial to accelerate recovery time and reduce the spread of illness, both of which, help to increase workplace productivity and morale.”

And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

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