The sick-day dilemma

Life isn’t fair. Sick leave policies aren’t either. How to be as fair, healthy and productive as possible.

Kevin Dee can count on one hand the number of sick days he’s taken in the past 15 years. When the CEO of Ottawa-based staffing company Eagle Professional Resources does feel under the weather, he holes up in his office and keeps working. “Sometimes you feel like babying yourself, and you can either give in to that or suck it up and go to work,” says Dee, who jokingly calls himself “Attila the Hun.” “If you choose to give in, that’s fine, but that’s one of your [personal] days gone.” Dee says he used to offer staff six sick days a year, but that certain employees would always max them out, while others wouldn’t take any. With the caveat that he’s generalizing, because anyone can get sick, Dee says: “This second group are the people who are most dependable, and yet they were being penalized.”

The question of how to manage employee absenteeism fairly is a big issue in today’s workplace. Health and wellness are more valued than in the past, but businesses themselves are struggling to stay healthy. Viruses such as H1N1 have made people cautious of flu-like symptoms. But as any CEO can attest, this can leave your bottom line feeling under the weather.

Dee says his company of 100 employees is constantly under pressure from corporate customers that rely on its services. “Our business, like most these days, have our costs scrutinized closely by clients,” he says. “They don’t want to overpay for a service, so we have to run as lean as we can.” Though the effect of people’s taking sick days may be more immediately felt by smaller companies, big ones also bear a burden. In 2003, American Airlines put out a message to employees explaining that at any one time 5% of the staff were off sick, costing the company US$1 million every day.

That doesn’t mean employees should feel as if they always have to show up. According to a recent survey by CareerBuilder, nearly three-quarters of workers go into the office when they feel sick, citing pressure or guilt as the main factor. “People are trained to work, work, work,” says Dr. David Satok, corporate medical director for Rogers Communications in Toronto. “They want to do the right thing for the team and not let people down.” He says if there was a blood test that offered the results—work or not work—the decision would be easier. There are some no-brainers, such as being feverish, vomiting or coughing, but when to stay home will always be somewhat subjective.

It’s important to show employees you trust them, and giving them the power to decide when and why they take time off is important. Roger Chevalier, a California–based management consultant, says most of the companies he works with combine sick with personal days, trusting the employees will use the time when they need it. He says the more you force your employees to punch a clock, the more they’ll probably feel like abusing the system. “Don’t put the person in a position of having to ask permission like a child when they need to miss a day of school and have to get a doctor’s note,” he says. “It’s kind of a demeaning thing.”

If you are worried about an employee taking a lot of sick time, there’s a right and wrong way to ask about it. Satok recommends expressing concern (“Hey, David, you missed a couple days of work over the last couple of months. Everything OK?”) rather than frustration, noting that as a manager you don’t have a right to personal information. Another good option is encouraging employees to work from home if they don’t feel 100% up to coming in, so they can save on using a sick day and don’t infect others.

Deborah Sawyer, the president of New York–based business consultancy Information Plus, says you can find ways to reward hard workers over the slackers. She suggests allowing anyone who’s worked overtime during peak periods to bank a certain number of hours toward sick leave. “This way you have already obtained work value from people when you really need it,” she says.

Five years ago, Dee implemented a new system whereby employees get five personal days to use as they wish. He says though most people use up all the days now, which costs the company more, the system is fairer to those with a “good attitude.” Though he says Eagle Professional can be flexible to those with extenuating circumstances, Dee expects employees to cover their workload, and not cause the company grief. “With the five personal days versus sick days, we attempt to treat people like adults,” he says. “And we expect them to act like adults.”