Once upon a time, taking a sick day was pretty straightforward. Before the advent of remote work, if an employee was sick, they would either go into the office (despite feeling unwell) and power through – or call in sick and stay at home to recover. The first option might give you the chance to try and keep up with your workload. While the second option could mean you’d have time to recover.

But now that remote work has become more commonplace, the choice to take a sick day is not as cut and dry. Yes, a debilitating flu can make it hard to work. But when technology allows us to work from anywhere at anytime, for the busy employee, there’s a tendency to stay tethered to people and projects – and continue performing tasks even if a proper rest is needed. In fact, a 2021 survey by LifeWorks shows that more than half of Canadians admitted to doing their job while feeling physically or psychologically unwell. 1

The Why

Money and job security may have a lot to do with the work-while-sick trend or digital presentism we see today. In Ontario, under the Employment Standards Act, most employees are entitled to three days of unpaid job-protected sick leave each calendar year—regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, or minimum wage employees. But unpaid sick time dissuades some employees from taking any time off at all. Two out of three workers reported in an October poll that inflation stopped them from calling in sick due to the financial strain that comes from taking an unpaid sick day. 2

Some companies may have also inadvertently perpetuated a culture of overwork, as 57% of employees said that working through illness was perceived as a strength by colleagues.3

Others might want to avoid having to face an unmanageable pile of work that would wait for them upon their return to work.

But some employees work while sick, because they consider their sickness “minor” and believe that they don’t have a bad enough illness to justify the time off. In fact, 63% of Canadians reported that their decision to go to work unwell was based on a belief that feeling mentally unwell wasn’t a good enough reason to take time off. 4

The Problem

True, working remotely even while sick means that you’re not spreading germs in the office. But it’s still a bad idea from both a business and employee standpoint. There’s data to support that working while sick hinders job performance and productivity. Plus, working while ill could lead to more burnout. Studies that include a report from the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry and another one from The British Psychological Society show that working while sick is also strongly correlated with increased depression and anxiety.5 6

The Fix

Of course, sickness looks different person to person and what is manageable for one can be debilitating for someone else. But HR teams and organizations have a responsibility to create a culture where employees feel safe to take sick leave, especially in a hybrid and remote work environment. Protecting sick leave benefits everyone so if you offer sick days that are going unused by remote workers, consider…

1. Providing clear guidelines

Be sure that your organization’s expectations around sick days are clearly communicated to employees. Guidelines could include:

  • The physical symptoms that generally warrant sick time such as fever, fatigue etc.
  • An outline of when sick days could be used for mental health recovery
  • How to notify teammates and managers of sick time
  • Expectations around checking emails
  • Consider offering employees anonymous ways to contact HR with any concerns or questions regarding sick leave policy
  • Examine your sick leave policy and ensure it meets the current needs of your employees and Ontario employment laws

2. Recalibrating your work culture

A careful and honest look at your work culture must be done to line up sick day policies with what’s practiced at work. Some questions that HR could ask:

  • Does your company encourage employees to take care of their physical and mental health or take vacation time even when they’re not sick?
  • Is there an expectation that employees (remote, hybrid and in-office) will work remotely if they get sick?
  • Do managers encourage employees to take sick time but always work when their ill?
  • Is burnout or turnover increasing?

Understanding your work culture means you can start to address employee concerns about sick time. An internal survey, for example, could indicate that remote workers are less likely to take sick days because they:

  • Want to prove their value to colleagues and leaders
  • Feel like they will fall behind on work or be left out of important projects
  • Are afraid that employers will think they are taking advantage of remote work policies
  • Don’t see colleagues or leaders taking sick time 7

3. Being an example

Essentially, even if you create an environment that safeguards sick leave, many employees will be reluctant to take a sick day if they don’t see leadership doing the same. When leadership and HR take a sick day when their unwell, it helps signal to employees that’s ok to do so if needed too. It shows that taking a sick day isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s just another part of being human.