Canadian HR Reporter
Jan 23, 2019

January most popular time for calling in sick: Survey

Sick Worker
‘Excessive sick leaves seem to be more related to motivation than germs’
By Marcel Vander Wier

As workplaces ramp back up following the holidays, chances are there will be a spike in sick workers through January, according to a survey.

It’s the most popular time to call in sick (23 per cent), followed closely by December (19 per cent), according to a survey of 1,103 U.S. workers by O.C. Tanner, an employee recognition firm.

And nearly one-third of respondents (31 per cent) admitted they have called in sick as an excuse to miss work, when they were not actually feeling physically ill.

The primary reasons are to rest and relax, spend time with family, run personal errands or avoid travelling to work in bad weather, according to the survey.

The findings suggest those who do skip work are generally more dissatisfied with their organization, said Gary Beckstrand, vice-president of the O.C. Tanner Institute in Salt Lake City.

“If someone’s taking a sick day and they’re not sick, that could be because they’re feeling stressed out, or there’s an important family event that they feel like the only way to attend is by claiming a sick day and being untruthful, or that they’re just emotionally or physically spent, or they’ve been working around the clock,” he said.

The findings are “entirely consistent” with a 2015 Macdonald-Laurier Institute report on public sector sick leave in Canada, said Philip Cross, study author and senior fellow at the Ottawa think-tank.

“Sick leave — and, in particular, excessive use of sick leave — seems to be more related to motivation than germs,” he said.

“There isn’t as much mobility or job jumping as there used to be when the economy was much stronger and, as a result, people feel more and more trapped in a job they may not like.”

Abuse of system

One-third (34 per cent) of the workers who have called in sick indicated their work situation is affecting their happiness.

That’s a troublesome statistic for employers in that it reflects malaise in certain occupations — especially front-line services, said Cross.

And as governments across the country work to implement more leaves for workers — for issues such as family responsibility and domestic violence — total days lost per full-time worker continue to steadily rise in Canada, from 8.8 days annually in 2014 to 10 days in 2018, according to Statistics Canada.

Sick leave abuse should be an area of wider study in Canada, according to Cross.

“It’s hardly looked at,” he said. “The potential cost this could impose on employers is an issue, and should be studied. We shouldn’t just be willy-nilly going around granting more leaves to people, and especially not in the public sector… There’s more than enough leave in the public sector.”

While private sector workers may deserve more sick leave benefits, they should be very specifically targeted, said Cross.

“You have to be aware of the burden this places on employers.”

But sick day abuse is often indicative of poor workplace culture, said Beckstrand.

“You need to make sure that you’re competitive and you’re giving enough sick days to really make sure that you’re accommodating that sense of well-being and you care about their physical health,” he said. “If you clamp down and assume everybody is guilty until proven innocent, you’re reinforcing a culture of disrespect and lack of trust.”

Advice for HR

Human resources professionals would be wise to ensure leave policies are well-established and understood, said Beckstrand.

And when it comes to sick days, employers should be as generous and positive as possible, as a commitment to holistic wellness reduces stress amongst workforces, he said.

Establishing a setting where employees can be their “authentic selves” will give staff an increased sense of belonging, and serve to reduce absenteeism, said Beckstrand.

“If the experience at work is somewhat positive and there's some social connections there, I think people are less likely to not be at work… stress levels go down.”

Employers should resist the urge to confront employees about sick leave abuse, but rather keep records and look for systematic leave requests, such as consistently calling in sick around long weekends, said Cross.

Rather than locking down policy and becoming more stringent about sick leave, employers should focus on more positive actions such as valuing employees, recognizing work accomplishments and supporting flexible options to allow staff to attend important events and make up time on evenings and weekends, said Beckstrand.

Such actions should minimize reasons for absenteeism, he said.

For younger workers, “work is life and life is work,” said Beckstrand. “It’s really integrated. Accommodating that and understanding that is really an important thing.”

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