COVID-19 has changed a great deal about the way we look at health and wellness. For years, there’s been a mentality in many workplaces that emphasizes “the grind”—putting in long hours and going above and beyond—regardless of the usually negative impact on health.
Working when unwell is not only bad policy, but it’s also detrimental to recuperation time and mental health. Research shows that employees who work while unwell end up needing more sick time later on and are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and stress. Although many organizations have shifted towards guilt-free time off, remote work has further changed the balance between work and home life, with many countries reporting “some of the lowest numbers of workers taking sick days in years”.
With BC and Ontario announcing specific legislation to allow paid time off as a result of COVID-19, many are left wondering how that will translate for post-pandemic sick days. Leaders, together with their employees, will need to determine what is both logical and fair for post-pandemic sick days.
What do sick days look like when working remotely?
There can be an extra sense of guilt about taking a sick day when you’re already working from home. With continued lockdowns and restrictions, employees often feel that there’s not much else to do—other than work. It is possible to feel T too sick to head into the office but not sick enough to take a sick day.
Of course, we know the importance of being able to take genuine time off, whether it’s a sick day to rest and recuperate or a mental health day, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t an unspoken pressure to show up (online at least), no matter the situation.
Studies have indicated that employees are increasingly reluctant to take time off while working remotely and that “nearly half of employees believe that COVID-19 has made other illnesses look ‘minor,’ and 66% of those working remotely believe that taking sick days for anything less severe than COVID-19 would be looked down upon by their employer”.
Working from home may have actually increased presenteeism—where employees show up to work even though they are not able to perform at their best—with 7 out of 10 employees saying that they’ve worked from home while feeling ill and “57% feel that doing so enhanced their credibility with coworkers”.
Whether it’s implicit pressure to not give colleagues more work in your absence, or the explicit pressure to do a presentation regardless of mental or physical health, employees might feel they can never take a day off. Additionally, the financial and job insecurities that have come from the pandemic means that people are more determined than ever to show their value by ensuring they’re always available—even if it comes as a detriment to their health.
A policy change may be necessary, but more than that there needs to be a culture shift around taking time off.
Many organizations have made a switch from sick days to personal days, which can be used more flexibly. Post-pandemic sick days, in general, will have to emphasize the importance of health and taking personal time—and employers will have to trust their employees to use their time off appropriately.
While it’s essential that your organization follows all labour codes for your region, most companies do choose to offer more than the bare minimum required for sick days. It’s important to have a clear policy in place that outlines time off, and what each type of day is meant to be used for.
According to a LinkedIn article: “what’s most important is that managers lead by example: by taking time off when they feel sick, being transparent about why they’re taking off, letting employees know when they’ll be offline, and above all, actually staying offline”.