Effective and responsible illness management in the workplace

25 May, 2010

I left work at 11:30 this morning because I wasn’t feeling great. I wasn’t coughing and spluttering or running a high fever. Just tired and aching a bit. I had sufficient sleep last night and had no other reason to feel that way so I read the early warning signs and took the rest of the day off to rest and recover.

Maybe it was just tiredness, maybe I was coming down with something. I don’t know. However I’m a strong advocate for employees being responsible for good illness management and employers in helping create a culture that supports employee health and is committed to workforce and organisational resilience.

One of the things that often annoys me is when people turn up to work sick as a dog and refuse to take the day off because they’re too busy or have insufficient sick leave. Apart from the fact that being at work reduces their capacity to recover thus extending the period they’ll be ill it also affects the quality of their work and relationships with colleagues and for influenza or other contagious diseases carries with it a high risk of infecting others.

Without wishing to dehumanise the issue, it’s simple maths. If an employee only takes the minimum amount of sick leave needed to recover from an illness they might be off work for 3 days whilst suffering with the illness for a total of 10 days. However by coming to work for those other 7 days minus weekends they’re likely infecting others. So whilst that employee thinks they’re doing the right thing by gritting their teeth and getting on with the job, minimising staff downtime to 3 days they’re likely causing another dozen employees to become sick and thus lose the organisation more like 50 days of staff time.

The rigidity of HR policy around sick leave doesn’t help either. You don’t accrue any sick leave till after a month of employment and then only two days per month plus an annual allocation for “personal leave without evidence” (at least in my workplace). So if you come down with the flu you better hope it’s not in the first four months of your employment because unpaid sick leave is a big incentive to keep on working.

Just looking at the maths earlier, wouldn’t it make sense to take a more flexible approach to sick leave and let that first ill employee, Patient Zero, take as much time as they need, take the full 7 days they need to recover rather than risk losing a dozen staff and entire business capabilities for weeks on end?

It’s not rocket science. The numbers alone should persuade. But why not forget your inflexible policies and just look after your staff; have the authority to grant them all the time they need to recover so they can get back to work sooner than dragging an illness out for several weeks because they’re not getting the rest they need. They’ll thank you for it.

It’s a win-win for the organisation and staff. So why aren’t we doing this?


  1. Your basic premise seems to take some liberties with how infections tends to work: specifically, most people are infectious *before* they display overt symptoms of that sickness. Influenza is a great example of this – you’ve done most of your infecting of the people around you *at least* one day before you exhibit symptoms (other illnesses can have even more significant delays between infectious period and symptoms).

    I agree, the idea of sick leave is a bit silly as it’s currently conceived, and looking after staff should be management’s #1 priority – but that particular argument falls flat to me.

  2. Actually, wait, rethink: you’re still infectious while you’re symptomatic, in most cases. So your argument still holds in those cases. Uh. Forget I said anything.

    Damn the man!


  3. LOL thanks Andy. You’re right, you can infect people before you even realise you’re sick but one of the principles of organisational resilience is to be mindful of weak signals and I think that applies here too. If people are serious about stopping the spread of illness in the workplace they should learn to read their bodies and will probably discover they know when they’re coming down with something before they’re symptomatic. Signs that show their immune system is starting to take some load – unusual tiredness for example.

  4. Oh I should also mention that a) You can’t get a doctor’s certificate on weak symptoms to use your “Personal leave with evidence” which doesn’t help; and b) Because I’m having regular weekly counselling sessions with a psychologist, it uses nearly all my monthly personal leave allocation anyway so I simply cannot afford to get sick.

  5. What about those who eschew modern medicine and prefer garlic, vitamin c and echinacea to get them well again? Should they have a responsibility to get well asap, to go and get a course of antibiotics?

  6. Nick, I’m of the opinion that people should be free to choose to manage their personal health how they choose. As mere employers, we shouldn’t feel we have the power to dictate “best practice” in medicine and treatment.

  7. Policies used to be a lot more flexible. When I joined the APS in 2002 you received an annual allocation of sick leave, pro-rataed if you joined partway through the year. Every January you received your 20 days of leave. There was no gradual accrual.

    Why has this changed? Maybe it is a savings exercise? (unexpended leave is a cost that has to be accounted for). Maybe it is an efficiency exercise? Maybe it’s one of those blanket policies that have a negative impact on most stuff because a few people took advantage of it for their own personal benefit? I simply don’t know.

    I’ve read a number of places (I wish I had bookmarked them) that state that chronic “presenteeism” is a major issue in Australia and I think workplace sick leave policies is a contributing factor here.

  8. This was an interesting article “Presenteeism costly to business” http://www.humanresourcesmagazine.com.au/articles/ea/0c04d3ea.asp

  9. For every employee who comes to work sick, there’s another one who stays home cause they just felt like it.

    It’s a balancing act, the world is not full of Type A work-a-holics martyrs 🙂

    I know getting contracting is a major motivation for me to come to work, I got pneumonia and took 4 days off. Cost me a fortune.

    • Ah Steven, don’t get me started! There are usually reasons why people take days off just because they feel like it … reasons they’d rather stay home than face work. It shouldn’t be about having to “face” or “endure” work or “drag yourself through the day”. If that’s how people feel about work then there’s a significant job satisfaction, leadership and cultural issue that’s probably costing the organisation far more indirectly than people chucking sickies.

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