We all get sick every now and again. However much we try to eat right, exercise right, get our flu shots etc. it happens. And it’s not good for our health to be at work when we're sick. Or your coworkers comfort level. They may usually like working with you, but they definitely don’t want to catch whatever it is that you have.
The best, and most sensible, thing you can do for yourself is take time off work to rest and recuperate. In other words, a sick day. But that isn’t always available, which is a big mistake. Allow us to explain with a hypothetical example.
X company offers five paid sick days a year. Naturally, this policy ensures that people show up to work even when they were gravely ill. One day someone strolls into the office with a highly contagious staph infection.
Within a week that staph infection has turned into a staff infection, an organization wide pandemic. One that destroys productivity across the team and even affects people who don't work in your office, like team members spouses and kids.
We bring this up because it’s a good example of why your company’s sick day policy can make or break your workplace. In this article we’ll take a look at how sick day policies are affecting not only your team’s productivity, but their engagement and culture, too.
Is your sick day policy serving your people?
A company’s sick leave policy is something people often take for granted or neglect to ask about until we’re actually sick themselves. Is it paid or unpaid? Does it include personal or mental health days? How many days do I get each year? Can I accrue additional sick days after my first year?
What are most paid sick time policies like? They vary from country to country, of course.
For example, in the U.S., “the federal government does not currently require employers to provide any paid sick leave. However, some states and municipalities have instituted laws requiring employers to offer paid sick leave before the standard one year of service.” Whereas a country like Australia mandates that employers provide at least ten days of paid sick leave.
But in general, it’s up to employers how many sick days their employees are entitled to in a given year. Some organizations are more generous, while others offer next to nothing. Here’s a particularly egregious example.
In 2018, a Florida public school teacher named Robert Goodman was battling cancer. He needed 20 sick days in order to undergo a round of chemotherapy, but he had run out. His coworkers generously donated theirs: “Teachers, staff members, administrators and even lunchroom workers who pay into the Florida retirement system transferred 75 sick days to Goodman.”
Heartwarming? Of course. But why was this act of kindness – as lovely as it was – even necessary? Why didn’t his employer see a life-threatening illness and provide their valued employee with some much-needed time off to undergo treatment?
This is an extreme example of a terrible sick day policy, but that doesn’t mean a bad sick day policy is rare. In fact, they're a lot more common than we think. And they can create a dangerous ripple effect across an organization.
What is presenteeism?
This effect is called presenteeism, and it’s when people feel obligated to show up to work even when they’re physically or mentally suffering. Even though they’re technically “present” at their desk, their productivity (and ultimately the productivity of those around them) decreases because they’re not functioning normally. If you’ve ever had the flu, you know how difficult it can be to perform basic tasks like getting out of bed, let alone plugging figures into an Excel spreadsheet.
When presenteeism occurs at your office, you run the risk of losing multiple employees to illness over the course of weeks instead of one employee for two days. It’s estimated that presenteeism costs companies billions of dollars in lost revenue each year.
Presenteeism is what happens when employers provide insufficient paid sick leave, show up to work sick themselves, and equate more man hours with higher productivity. When that happens, employees feel the need to show up sick themselves and ultimately do fail to meet their full potential.
Unlimited sick days?
Of course this can be an easy problem to fix: mainly by implementing a sick leave policy that serves your people. There are a couple different ways to do this, but the one that often works best and makes the most sense is unlimited sick days, which is precisely what you think it is. It allows people to take off as much time as they want, whenever they want (as long as they notify their manager beforehand).
Why do this? Because it demonstrates to people that you want them to take care of themselves, but also that you trust them not to abuse such a generous, relaxed policy. This kind of sick day policy isn't total chaos, either. There’s always going to be stipulations that take into account the nature of the illness on a case-by-case basis.
The benefits of an unlimited sick day policy are huge. First, your people won’t feel pressured to show up to work when they’re sick, so low productivity caused by presenteeism won’t be an issue.
Second, people are much more likely to stay at an organization that values their health. Third, the company culture and even just day-to-day interactions with one another become more respectful, understanding, and empathetic.
A sick day policy that recognizes the vulnerability of people is always going to have a more positive effect on organizations than one that views people as mere resources who need to be at their desk X number of hours. Besides, healthy, happy employees are good for business, and a lot more fun to work with.