Sick leave and remote working: an employee wellbeing issue

Lydia Watson

Lydia Watson

When’s the last time you took a sick day? Whether virus, cold, or hangover, it’s no secret that employers and employees can have differing opinions about taking time off for illness - from feeling reluctant to fall behind, to being suspicious about symptoms.

These days, our health and wellbeing is top of mind - and with employees working from home, it’s important to make expectations clear when it comes to sick days. 

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The pre-existing stigma of sick leave

We’ve had a complicated relationship with sick leave for a while - one survey found 60% had gone to work while ill, with workers reluctant to take time off even when suffering from severe symptoms. Why? Some blame it on a reluctance to fall behind with their work, with others fearing sick days reflect badly on their loyalty. 

This is a problem when it involves coming into the office - spreading sickness to colleagues, or fellow commuters - but what does it mean for remote workers?

Remote working means fewer sick days are taken

Multiple studies have shown that remote workers are ‘off sick’ significantly less - something that’s been the case pre-pandemic, with research dating back to the flu season in 2017

On one level, this seems like another positive to add to the long list about remote working - from the financial benefits for employers, who lose £29 billion a year thanks to sick leave, and the freedom for employees to stay on top of their tasks, even if it’s from their bed. But what are the drawbacks of working during sick leave?

Why ‘sickness presenteeism’ damages employee health and wellbeing:

  1. Slower recovery: While unwell employees might think they ‘might as well’ log on, research has shown that it could make it harder to recover - and increases the risk of being unwell in the future.
     
  2. Mental health problems: Working through illness can also increase your risk of depression and anxiety, and in a time when wellbeing is already under threat, that’s not a risk worth taking.
     
  3. Poor performance: However unwell your employee is, and whatever their symptoms, it’s likely to affect their performance. With their “cognitive abilities and decision-making” compromised, work quality could be affected.

How organisations can discourage employees working when ill:

      1. Managers should lead by example

It’s hard for managers to know how their employees really are, when all their interactions are through a pixelated video call. What managers can do is lead by example, by taking time off when they need it, and communicate that it’s ok to take time off.

      2. Communicate that mental health matters

21% of employees have admitted calling in sick when they felt stressed - but what that really shows is that many don’t consider feeling mentally unwell to be a good enough reason. Studies support that, with 61% likely to lie if their reason for calling in was mental health-related and 30% saying they couldn’t talk to their manager about stress. But ‘depression sick leave’ is the same as any other sick leave. Change the conversation, and make it clear that mental illness counts too.

      3. Consider rebranding ‘sick leave’

It’s clear that the ‘mental health conversation’ isn’t one that employees are always comfortable having. Organisations can side-step it completely, if necessary, by changing what ‘sick leave’ means. Some companies call them “personal emergency days” - applicable to illness, poor mental health, family issues, or anything else that might come up. It means no awkward conversations about bodily functions too, which can only be a good thing.

      4. Keep on listening, and reacting

You’ll never know everything your employees are going through. But with smarter listening - through confidential or anonymous surveys, powered by language analysis tech - you can stay on top of your people’s wellbeing. Wellbeing and employee engagement is closely linked, so it’s a good move for your workforce and your organisation. 

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Topics: Employee Engagement, News

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