OHS Canada Magazine

How working from home affects employee sick time

COVID-19 has reframed the conversation around sick days to consider employee well-being over simply being present


LifeWorks’ most recent Mental Health Index indicates that more than half of Canadians do their job while feeling unwell at least one day per week. (Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock)

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in March 2020 saw many people — whose jobs were possible to perform remotely — suddenly working from home.

According to a study conducted by Statistics Canada released earlier this year, 32 per cent of Canadian employees aged 15 to 69 worked most of their hours from home at the beginning of 2021, compared with four per cent in 2016.

While that number was down to 25.8 per cent in July, it still represents a massive shift in workplace demographics compared to the pre-pandemic period.

Despite the extended nature of this shift, it’s still considered a temporary adaptation for almost half (48.4 per cent) of those who are working from home.

As return-to-office plans are drafted and redrafted to roll with the emerging variants and public shutdowns, employers are naturally considering the impact of work-from-home on productivity.

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The same study from early 2021 found that, of all new teleworkers, 90 per cent reported being at least as productive (i.e. accomplishing at least as much work per hour) at home as they were previously at their usual place of work.

Remote work’s effect on well-being

Productivity is an important metric in a workplace, no doubt — but with health top-of-mind more than ever due to the pandemic, it’s important to consider how this shift has affected employee well-being, as well.

“In terms of people feeling unwell and in terms of presenteeism — that’s basically people working when sick and not working to full capacity because they’re sick — we’ve really not seen any decrease at all. As a matter of fact, we’ve seen a slight increase (since the pandemic began),” said Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total well-being with LifeWorks.

“But when people are flexible in terms of the way they’re able to work, they can work around their illness, which could be a good thing — or it might not be a good thing.”

LifeWorks’ most recent Mental Health Index indicates that more than half of Canadians do their job while feeling unwell at least one day per week.

When home is the workplace, it’s a lot easier to justify booting up the computer to do a few tasks in the evening or on weekends to catch up rather than booking an official sick day for rest, said Allen.

“For years, we’ve known that having a flexible workplace actually reduces the actual amount of sick time that people take,” she added.

Illness types have changed

Allen noted the type of illness might have changed with the shift to remote work, but the illnesses might be more serious in terms of their long-term consequences, especially if employees aren’t allowing themselves adequate time to recover.

“People are still getting sick, without question,” she said. “We’ve seen a decrease in flus and (colds), because we’re all locked in our homes for a long period of time, but we’ve certainly seen compromises in terms of mental health (and) pain. We know that people are not taking care of their physical health needs, as well as their mental health needs, as much as they had before, so illness has gone up.”

The distinction between being sick and taking time off while sick is an important one to keep in mind, Allen said.

“I think organizations need to understand that they are different concepts. People being sick, and people taking sick days are not the same thing, particularly now with work from home, where more people are likely working while sick or filling in time so they’re not taking time off work.”

This change in sick time use for remote workers is reflected by a change for workers who must be present in-person, though in the opposite direction.

“You’re more likely if you have to go into the workplace (to take) a sick day, because working through an illness is not really tolerable anymore. If you’re not 100 per cent, you’re making other people feel much more uncomfortable than you did before,” Allen said.

For those who can work remotely, there can be an element of guilt in taking a sick day.

“Because people can sometimes feel that they are able to do something, even if they’re not able to work to their full capacity, it’s more likely they will work through sickness. So, they might not be as productive, but they are able to work through to a certain extent.”

“The risk is that, if you have one of those situations where people are not taking sick time — either because of the nature of the work or (lack of) sick benefits — then what’s going to happen is quality of work ends up going down, and you don’t actually see that as quickly as you would like to,” said Allen.

“The other thing is that people are more likely to go off on a longer-term disability leave because they’re not taking time for themselves.”

Considerations for the return to office

On the topic of what to keep in mind when planning back-to-work strategies, Allen suggests emphasizing the importance of well-being when communicating with employees and training managers will help promote a healthy workplace that has less need for sick days.

“Making sure that your managers understand how to incorporate well-being as part of their management style. Flexibility, control, psychological safety, being willing to step in when they see things are off — these are all very trainable things,” she said.

“At the end of the day, employers need to keep in mind the fact that it isn’t a matter of counting just the sick days, it is a matter of how healthy your people are — I just want to reinforce that they are two different issues,” Allen stressed. “If you can focus on keeping people healthy, that’s the most important thing.”

“(With) physical health, there are things that will come up — we know that,” she said.

“But I think the main thing is to make sure that people feel mentally well and resilient, because overall, we know that the better your mental well-being, typically, the better your physical well-being and typically the more likely you are to be productive and not have symptoms, and not have a need for sick time.”

Alex Barnard is a journalist with Annex Business Media.


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