Home sick: How hybrid workplaces and employees can navigate flu season

hybrid work, home sick, flu season

While many workplaces have shifted to hybrid setups coming out of the pandemic, employment experts say workers should be cautious about using that added flexibility to work from home when feeling sick.

It’s a situation that some observers of remote work trends predict could become more prevalent as companies increasingly make their hybrid arrangements permanent.

“There is a bit of a return to … people’s comfort level with doing things while not feeling 100 per cent, but that’s not everybody by any means,” said John Trougakos, a University of Toronto professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management.

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With a current uptick in COVID-19 cases in Canada linked to two new variants, along with the usual cold and flu season, employment lawyer Brittany Taylor said it’s crucial that both employers and employees take the time now to consider how to handle sick days.

“I’m expecting as we get into the fall these issues are going to be more at the forefront,” said Taylor, a partner at Rudner Law.

The growing popularity of hybrid work arrangements has been documented throughout the past year. As of May, 41 per cent of Canadian workers that were considered remote had hybrid schedules, splitting time between on-site and at-home, up from one-quarter a year earlier, according to a report released last month by Indeed Canada.

Recruiting company Robert Half found hybrid working arrangements were favoured by 54 per cent of hiring managers, compared with 49 per cent of professionals surveyed _ suggesting a growing alignment that could mean a mix of in-office and work-from-home could be here to stay.

Stephen Harrington, national lead for workforce strategy at Deloitte Canada, said while plenty of Canadian organizations have plans for how people can work flexibly, he has not seen many prescribe rules around sick days.

“This is very early days for organizations figuring out exactly how this is going to work for themselves and their workforce,” said Harrington.

People who work from home even part of the time are far more likely to consider working while sick than those who work from an office, he said.

But that poses risks both for the worker, who could exacerbate their illness by not getting proper rest, said Harrington. It’s also a risk for the employer, as evidence shows people are not as effective and are more prone to error when working while ill.

“I think there may be organizations that are underestimating the social and cultural pressures when you’re working and there are deadlines or you feel an obligation,” said Harrington.

Employees in hybrid work situations should proactively seek clarity from their superiors on what level of accommodation they should expect when it comes to illnesses and the remote aspects of their work, Taylor said, especially when it’s inconvenient or unsafe to come into the office.

That means checking whether they’re allowed to work from home while sick on a day of the week designated for in-office work, and if so, whether that would mean they have to come in another day instead.

“Is it going to be a one-for-one scenario like that or is it a lot more flexible?” she said.

“Ultimately, unless (an employee’s) employment agreement gives them the right to work from home at their discretion, the employer is entitled to set the rules of the workplace, including when remote work is going to be permitted. So understanding those rules as an employee is key.”

Trougakos said businesses would be wise to adopt hybrid work models that are less “rigid” about which days staff are required to come in.

“If it’s not a well-thought-out model and it’s just put in a cookie cutter kind of way together, saying, ‘Well, you have to be there X number of days with no flexibility,’ then they’ll run into some pushback from employees,” he said.

“There will be some issue when people are inevitably going to get the next wave of COVID, flu, whatever other illnesses are going to be popping up.”

Sunira Chaudhri, founder and partner at Workly Law, noted that although workplaces have made efforts to offer accommodations in recent years, the balance of power has started to shift back to the employer. That has even played out with some employers using software to monitor their employees’ productivity when working remotely.

“I think flexibility comes with costs,” Chaudhri said.

“Employers have trended away from being as forgiving or tolerant of greater vacation and sick day policies with remote workers.”

Chaudhri said it’s important for employers to set clear boundaries on whether they will even allow their staff to work while sick. She urged employees to adhere to those boundaries when they are outlined.

Offering to work from home when sick can blur the lines, said Chaudhri.

“No employee should work while sick. A sick day should be a sick day and confirming that and being very clear … actually increases morale. It increases communication and reduces friction and potential liability.”

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