A recent report noted that Canadian federal employees take two to three times as many sick days as their private sector counterparts and discussed on Maritime Noon. Whatever lies at the root of this pattern, the trend signals a poor level of workplace resilience. Given the large size of this sector, differences on this scale are almost certain to reflect something meaningful. On an average workday, 19,000 federal employees are taking sick leave. Their offices must manage without those employees’ contributions. The total cost of lost time due to sick leave is around one billion dollars.
Elevated Illness. If federal employees are suffering physical and mental illness at an elevated rate, the employer faces a massive workplace health crisis. Elevated illness could be related to the quality of workspaces, furniture design, equipment, safety challenges, nutrition, exercise habits or a variety of other points. Employees’ work responsibilities could be interfering with their personal lives to the extent that they cannot recover their energy sufficiently from one day to the next. But evidence suggests federal government offices are particularly active in workplace health initiatives.
Level of Engagement. Part of used sick leave is absolutely necessary. When people are too ill to work effectively or so contagious they present a workplace hazard, everyone gains from them staying home. However, people exercise some discretion in their use of sick leave. They may not be seriously ill; they just don’t feel like going to work. Discretionary leave becomes more likely as engagement with work decreases. They feel their work or at least their individual contribution to the work has less importance than other priorities.
Respect. Civility and respect attract people to a workgroup. Respect creates a climate in which people feel welcomed and appreciated. In an environment of mutual respect, people are reluctant to let down their colleagues by failing to show up. When encountering disrespect or incivility at work, people will be motivated to avoid these encounters. Their resentment towards colleagues for this behavior or towards management for failing to assure a respectful workplace reduces their feelings of obligation for showing up.
Commitment. In turbulent times, employees worry about their job security. During budget reductions or when productivity is defined as maintaining workflow with fewer people, employees conclude that the employer has reduced its commitment to them. They are more likely to reduce their commitment in return.
Excessive absences reflect a non-resilient workplace. The primary resource of people’s talents is neglected. The psychological contract of employers with employees is flawed. Both employers and employees treat sick leave as an entitlement to enrich compensation packages rather than a commitment to cover contingencies during illness. While this additional cost may be sustainable in good times, it strains the system.
A few relevant points:
• Employees often refer to borderline use of sick leave as stress days.
• Half of federal employee disability claims are based on stress.
• The most distressed people at work are those who attend despite illness.
• Very few workplace health programs have demonstrated effectiveness in controlled research.
There are no easy answers!
What to do?
The most constructive course is to improve the fundamental supports of workgroup resiliency: civility and engagement. When absence rates are a problem, the group can set goals for improving those rates as one indicator of progress. It is also important to reflect on the real purpose of sick leave, moving the system away from its function as a salary entitlement.
Increased monitoring or requiring health care providers to confirm employee illnesses is a strategy of dubious prospects. These practices can further erode trust in the employment relationship.
What are your thoughts?