How to Deal with Sickness in the Workplace

Posted by martin.parnell |

Recent news headlines are focussing on the corona virus, which originated in the Wuhan China. At the time of writing, 132 people are dead and more than 6,152 cases have been confirmed in mainland China and there are more than 90 confirmed cases in 19 places outside of mainland China. The World Health Organisation is monitoring the spread and we all hope that a cure can be found and, with proper action, its spread can be contained. 

In Canada, this time of year is called “flu season.” Influenza activity often begins to increase in October and November. Most of the time flu activity peaks between December and February, and it can last as late as May. 

Now, the prospect you, or one of your workforce, being infected with the corona virus is probably pretty remote. On the other hand, many people may be susceptible to contracting flu and should take time, at home, to recover, in order to prevent the risk of contaminating colleagues. 

Unfortunately, most of us will get sick, at some time or another, whether it be due to the flu, a common cold, something more serious or we may need to take time off due to an injury. Most companies will have a sick leave policy, so that employees know what procedures to enact when they need to take sick leave. Employers should be supportive and enquire as to any support they may be able to give to a sick employee. 

So, how do you deal with the issues of sickness in the workplace? 

It’s a tricky subject, but I found a post by Gabrielle Lis, on the Return To Work Matters website entitled Top ten ways to reduce sick leave, she includes advice and provides some food for thought. Her “top ten” are as follows:

Have clear policies and procedures regarding work absence. Employees should know who to contact, how contact should be made (for example, whether text messaging, emailing or calling is appropriate) and when notification of absence must be made (for example, by 930am on the day of absence). There should also be clarity regarding requirements for medical certificates and methods for dealing with habitual absenteeism. Fairness and consistency are important. If you want people to respect the system, it has to be worthy of their respect.

Offer tangible support to those with an injury or illnessthat requires more than a day or two off work. Send a card from the whole team. Make a phone call and ask if there’s anything the organisation can do to help. Let the person know that they’re missed and appreciated. Most people feel vulnerable when they’re sick or sore and a kind word can do a world of good. Pragmatically, it is also likely to increase the person’s desire to return to work.

Switch on supervisors and managers to the most effective ways of managing and reducing sick leave. Help them understand that focusing on LTIs (lost time injury) alone will not achieve the results they want. Supervisors and managers who extend empathy, support and trust to workers tend to see better outcomes than those focused on meeting their KPIs (key performance indicators) at all costs. 

Make allowance for non-medical leave and flexible working arrangements, to enable people to balance their personal life and work without resorting to “sickies”. For example, studies have shown that sick leave rises during school holidays, when parental responsibilities compete with work responsibilities. Where appropriate, allowing parents to work from home as required during these periods can assist them to keep an eye on their kids while also ensuring the job gets done.

Have a positive working environment. People are much more likely to take a “mental health day” if they dread going to work. Happy workplaces are ones in which employees are listened to, workloads are achievable and fair, and social support is encouraged. When the workplace is a happy place, workers will want to be in it!

Address any concerns regarding job security. Workers who feel that their job is not secure tend to take more sick days than those who believe themselves to be in stable employment. Dealing with issues around job security in an honest and supportive way is the best option if their concerns are justified. If not, make sure they know it. A sense of security reduces sick leave.

Don’t let conflict fester in the workplace. Workplace conflict, including personality clashes, bullying and conflict between supervisors / managers and workers can be harmful if it is not dealt with quickly and effectively. Not only can festering conflict lead to short term absences. It can also contribute to stress claims and other psychological injuries, which tend to be complex, long-term and expensive. Actively manage conflict, and offer mediation where appropriate.

Acknowledge good work with verbal praise and / or financial rewards. No one likes to feel unappreciated. When people perform well, let them know. A person who feels engaged with their work, a person who knows them self to be valued, is less likely to take time off unless they really need it. 

Be accommodating. Sick leave karma can work for you or against you. On one hand, making modified duties available to someone temporarily unable to perform their regular duties reduces their need to take time off work. On the other hand, making a fuss about allowing someone two hours away from their desk to attend a psychologist’s appointment increases the chance that they’ll take the day off work next time rather than broach the subject again. When it comes to sick leave, you get what you give.

Don’t let breaches of your policies and procedures slide. People also need to understand that there are consequences associated with taking advantage of the system. Habitual absenteeism and other breaches should be dealt with swiftly, predictably and fairly. “

So, the most important action to take would be to have a policy in place so that all employees are aware of your company regulations with regard to sick leave and to ensure that every employee is made aware of its contents.

It’s also important to remember that, although you don’t want employees calling in sick when they are not, you don’t want them coming into work if they are genuinely ill.

Chris Fields,  an HR professional, with more than 13 years of experience as a former practitioner and current HR consultant, who has been listed by the Huffington Post as one of the “Top 100 Most Social Human Resources Experts to Follow on Twitter”,  addresses this in his article Sick but still at work? – The real cost of “Presenteesism”, on the eSkill website, March 2014. 

He writes that “Presenteeism” is when sick employees come to work: the act of being present when you probably shouldn’t be. He states that “Presenteeism may not be as honorable as you think—it has its costs.”

He goes on to write: If you search the Internet for “sick at work” or “presenteeism” you will find several articles saying that as many as 90% of employees go to work that they are sick or even contagious. Employees who are present while sick risk infecting other employees and their families, which only continues the cycle of illness and lost production. In short, presenteeism ends up costing the company more money in lost productivity than absenteeism.

So why does this really happen?

There is plenty of research reflecting the fact that sick employees cost millions in lost productivity annually. Absenteeism is such a concern that many employers do not offer leave-of-absence or time-off benefits, which means that if an employee does not show up for work, he or she will not be compensated and/or could be reprimanded. Financial statistics claim that most workers only have enough in savings to last one month. So missing work is not an option without paid leave. Other companies offer paid time off, yet their employees feel the need to show up when they’re sick anyway. All of these factors lead to presenteeism.

Articles like "Why Your Sick Co-worker Insists on Coming to Work" on CBS News suggest that the reason is two-fold. On the one hand, companies do not offer paid time off to cover illness or the amount offered does not cover the amount of time needed to recover, so employees come to work when they’re sick. The second point the article makes is that many sick employees practice presenteeism because they have deadlines that no one else in the company can handle.”

In conclusion, he suggests “Companies need to do a better job of educating their employees about the cost of presenteeism, and letting them know that it’s best to take the time they need to get better, rather than come to work and risk the health of their fellow co-workers. Ideally your employees should be able to take time off without fear of losing their job, being excluded from major projects, disciplinary action, or losing out on pay.”

Inevitably, employees will get sick or injured, from time to time, but one thing businesses can do is to promote a healthy lifestyle and mental well-being. Also, be prepared. Just because one employee is off sick, you should have ways to deal with their workload, in their absence. For further information see my blog “Flu Season – How to Sub for an Absent Employee” posted October 2016.

About the Author

Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and his final book in the Marathon Trilogy, THE SECRET MARATHON-Empowering women and girls in Afghanistan through sport, was released on October 30th 2018. He speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential” and has written for, or been covered by CNNBBCCBCThe Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.

In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. In 2016 he ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in support of Afghan women and girls running for equality and his film “The Secret Marathon” will be out in late 2019. Find out more about Martin at  and see what he can do for you in the long run.

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