Has working from home replaced the ‘sick’ day?

31 January, 2019

When was the last time you took a proper sick day? By this, I mean taking a full day and night off work to recover from an illness whilst avoiding all work-related emails, calls and tasks. Can’t remember? That is not surprising.

In today’s highly competitive working world, sick days are seemingly becoming a thing of the past. Instead, an increasing number of employees call to tell their employer they’re unwell but then proceed to say they can work from home instead. Why? Many fear that taking the day off will make them seem dispensable to employers and may suggest a lack of loyalty or tenacity. High job demands, stress and job insecurity all may play a role in an employee’s decision to choose to work when they’re ill, as they wish to prove to their employer that they are fully committed to both their role and the company, when in reality they should be resting.

There’s always been a stigma attached to calling in sick. From a young age, many of our parents taught us that sick days should not be taken unless you have a very serious illness and even then many parents still doubted the truth regarding whether an illness was genuine or whether the individual just wanted to have a day off school. The same can be said for taking a ‘sick’ day at work; it seems employers and fellow employees alike, have become predisposed to thinking that those who take the day off may be faking it. Because of this, many sick employees decide to power through their illness by either going into work as normal or taking the day off but still working from home; both of which can cause further problems.

The rise of remote working, the increased mobility of the standard office and the accessibility of technology have made the decision to work from home when ill too easy for employees and the more employees that ask for permission to do this, the more problematic the consequences may become. It’s easy for an employee to agree to work from home when they have a cold, but what happens when they catch a severe stomach bug and working is not an option but it is now expected by the employer? Additionally, what happens if two colleagues are off sick, one of them works from home and the other has the day off, is this fair? How may the employer view this?

Flexible working hours are also decreasing the number of ‘sick’ days employees are taking, as this approach allows employees to schedule their time according to what best suits them as long as the necessary work is completed in the set time-frame. Therefore, when these employees become ill they may choose to take the morning off to relax at home and begin working when they are feeling better later in the afternoon. This relies on employees managing their time effectively but aslong as this is done properly, employees can take time off without taking a sick day, whilst still completing all necessary tasks.

Many employees choose to work from home when not feeling well simply because they fear getting behind with their workload. In our 24/7 working world, there will always be jobs that need to be done and emails that need to be replied too; for some employees the prospect of all the work they’d have to catch up on when they return is not worth the time off. While this may seem like an advantage to a business, in reality employees choosing to work whilst ill, also known as ‘presenteeism’ can add to the cost of organisations. They may end up having to pay a high price in terms of lost productivity by allowing their unwell employees to continue working. The cost to employees is also high; working whilst ill and not taking time off to recover may result in the illness deteriorating and therefore requiring the employee to take an extended period off work, rather than just a day or two.

Ultimately, working when sick should be avoided; however, if a motivated employee who detests taking sick days feels capable of doing some work from home then that is their choice and there is little that can be done to stop them. As long as this decision is voluntary and most importantly, that it is not the result of an employer’s set expectations, it should be left to the individual employee’s discretion. If an organisation wants to actively discourage employees from working on ‘sick’ days, introducing an alternative such as ‘personal emergency leave’ where employees can take a day off with no associated expectations that work should be completed and no requirement to disclose the reason, could be the answer.