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The Case Against Sick Days

March 27, 2003
Related Topics: Attendance, Benefit Design and Communication, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article
Your coworker calls to say she’s at home sick. Maybe she’s just thinkingtwice about inhabiting her cubicle while you’re sitting next to her hacking upa lung.

Going into work sick rather than staying home has reached epidemicproportions (pun intended). More often than not, employees who are sick wouldrather risk annoying their coworkers (and even contaminating them) than havetheir boss question their motives for staying home. Even bosses are succumbingto this anxiety-based "attendance disorder," thus creating a "culture of germs" in the office. If you're truly unfortunate, you could be on an airplanewith a pilot who, coughing into recirculated air, gets to infect hundreds in oneflight!

Many workers feel that they can't afford to call in sick. No matter how sickwe may actually be, we are made to feel guilty, as if we intentionally becameill. This can lead to denying how sick we really are and convincing ourselvesthat going to the office is probably better.

Interestingly enough, we may not even be conscious that we are doing this.It's so bad that you see employees with mounds of used tissues on their desks,sweating profusely and responding "I'm fine" when people inquire about theirhealth. What are we afraid of?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. We may worry that our boss will think we’refaking sickness to take a personal day. If you work in a high-stress,competitive environment, you may worry that you’ll miss an important event ormeeting and get left out in the cold while someone else saves the day (and grabsthat promotion you’ve been eyeing). In particularly toxic work environments,you may fear that someone will stab you in the back while you’re flat out onyours.

This appears to be a particularly American phenomenon. The American workculture is based on competition. An eight-hour day is rarely good enoughanymore. Europeans, by comparison, have seemingly mastered the concept ofwork-life balance. In France, if you wake up sick, you stay home.

The concept of "sick days" is obsolete and demotivating, and it should beeliminated. If you're really sick, you should be trusted to make the decision to stay home rather than feeling guilty and then infecting your coworkers. We have sick days to keep employees from abusing what some might view as "free"days off. The result is a plethora of sick-day policies that exist to police the 2 percent of employees who would actually take advantage of them.

The concept of "sick days" is obsolete and demotivating.

There’s a difference between rewarding attendance and punishing people whoare sick and need to stay home. Of course, excessive absence is an indicatorthat something else is wrong. Attendance is still an important employeeresponsibility, so excessive absences should still be discussed and explored asa symptom--not a cause--of workplace problems.

Companies should reorient their attendance policies to reward rather thanpunish. One technique is to give employees a half-day off for every quarter inwhich they have perfect attendance, and to let it accumulate. Reward perfectattendance, but don’t punish for necessary absences. When you place theemphasis on rewarding attendance, people will be absent only when coming to workis not an option (in other words, they’ll stay home when they are truly sickrather than call in sick when they need some personal time off).

Psychologically, it’s much easier to abuse sick leave if you feel you’renot an important part of the organization, or if you feel alienated bymanagement. Managers must regularly communicate to employees how important theyare to the enterprise.

Yearly reviews don't do enough to communicate to employees their worth to theorganization; they should have an ongoing sense of the importance of their role.When you know you are a needed and valued member of your team at work, yoursense of commitment and responsibility is strong enough that when you call insick, it’s because you are actually sick.

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