Op-ed: Do I take a sick day, or do I work sick? The decision is not so easy anymore

sick employee working remotely

There has never been a time that I can recall over the course of my career that the “sick day” has been such a popular topic. The nature of how we use the sick day has most certainly evolved and become more complex than ever before. 

Here we are, with the holidays just around the corner, finding ourselves in this heightened cold and flu season. It seems that every one one of us is dealing with some sort of respiratory virus these days.     

I woke up early one morning a few weeks ago and I could feel the early onset of some cold/flu symptoms. As I meandered to the coffee machine, I wondered to myself, “Gosh, when was the last time I was sick? Two, maybe three years ago?”  

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Back in the day, before the pandemic, I wouldn’t have thought anything of my mild symptoms. I would have soldiered on and gone into the office and likely would have run into many other people who made the same choice.  

That morning was different. I had to think long and hard about my choice and how it might impact others. Do I take a sick day, or do I work sick?    

For anyone else who has grappled with that decision, I would venture a guess that having the flexibility to work remotely and not face a commute likely played a very important part in their decision.   

I was really fascinated with my sick leave dilemma, so I did some research. Statistics Canada reports that employees in Ontario took an average 9.1 sick days in 2018, 9.2 days in 2019 and 10.3 sick days in 2020.  

That’s interesting. It looks like sick leave is on the rise.  

I wonder what we’d find if we studied the impact on productivity for workplaces where employees have the option to work remotely and decide to work while sick from home, instead of taking a sick day.  

Would their average number of sick days differ from workplaces that don’t offer a remote work option?

At face value, you might think that, if employees keep working even if they’re sick, productivity increases. But does it? I think it depends on the nature of the work and the individual’s resilience at that moment in time.  

If employees aren’t taking the rest they need to be working at their best, would that negatively impact productivity over the long term?  

Let’s turn our attention to workplaces where the employee doesn’t have an option to work remotely because they must be in the workplace using specific equipment on-site to get the job done.

Would it be safe to assume that those employees would choose to take a sick day rather than come into the workplace and expose their colleagues to their symptoms? I don’t think that we can make that assumption.  

Do those workplaces that don’t offer remote work report that their people take a higher-than-average number of sick days compared to the ones that do offer remote work?   

What role does workplace culture play in the decisions that employees make about sick leave? Is it culturally acceptable in that workplace to work sick? What pressures exist and where are the pressures coming from?

 We have much to study and learn on the topic and, if we’re going to do this right, we need to keep an open mind if we’re going to find new and innovative ways to create safer, healthier and productive workplaces.  

 Karen Brownrigg is the CEO of Ottawa-based iHR Advisory Services. 

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