When Should Sick Employees Stay Home?

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When Should Sick Employees Stay Home?

When an employee calls in sick we would all like to be able to say, “Yes, of course, please stay home, rest up and get-well-soon. We’ve got your job duties covered, yes—you’ll get paid, and see you back at work in a day or two.” But if it was always that easy, it wouldn’t make for much of an article now would it?

With the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reporting a “moderately severe” flu season already in full swing, and another solid three months of the official flu season still ahead of us, preventing the spread of flu (or any illness for that matter) in your workplace is definitely challenging, but worthwhile pursuit.

Access to Paid-Sick-Leave

In an ideal world, sick employees would always be able to take the day off to get better, not share their germs with their coworkers, and quickly get back to being fully productive members of your workforce. But the reality of today’s workplace is much different.

Despite a growing number of state and municipal level laws that mandate some minimum level of paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of March 2017, only about two-thirds of private sector employees have access to paid sick leave.

And yes, that number does account for those that have consolidated “Paid-Time-Off” (PTO) policies from which to deduct their sick days. The access to paid sick days drops below the 50% mark for workers in the service industry as well as the “construction, farming, etc.” industries—and, lower still, to barely over one-third, for part-time employees.

Under Pressure

Of course the statistics above only account for what sick leave options are officially on the books. Having the option to take a paid sick day does not take into account what subtle (or not so subtle) cultural or professional pressures are put on employees to “power through” their symptoms and show up regardless of their illness.

Whether that’s in the interest of being viewed as a “good, hard working” employee, or to avoid negative consequences of being looked down or passed over professionally for actually using those sick days to get better, study after study after study has shown that these pressures continue to exist (and employees continue to get their coworkers sick as a result) in many workplaces.

Another very real pressure that many non-exempt employees feel is the financial pressure to work their hours no matter what. If they don’t have sick time to take (no matter what the reason) the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) says they just don’t get paid. With many non-exempt workers on the lower end of the earnings scale to start with, losing out on even a few hours of pay can be a difficult pill to swallow.


Would you rather have one sick employee or the whole department? One day of work missed for mild symptoms or a week of absences because the employee didn’t take care of themselves and now the illness has escalated? For starters, many employers now provide flu-shots as part of their employee wellness programs.

While this preventative measure is the #1 recommended way to avoid the flu by the CDC, it is not fool-proof, and is only one of many possible illnesses that can be passed along at the office.

To keep the germs at bay, employers can provide employees with the proper tools to keep their individual workspaces clean, such as disinfectant wipes for hard surfaces (particularly if employees are “hot-desking” or “hoteling” and as a result sharing desks, chairs, computers, etc.), make sure bathrooms are always stocked with plenty of soap, and keep common areas on a regular cleaning rotation.

Pair these physical tools with educational materials on wellness and tips for preventing the spread of illness in the workplace for maximum effectiveness.

Absenteeism & Policy Abuse

According to ERC’s 2016 Absence Management Survey, employers report an average of 4.5 days’ worth of unscheduled absences per employee per year. Unscheduled absences are far and away the most-costly with employers scrambling to cover shifts & job duties at the last minute.

Unsurprisingly, the primary cause of these absences is illness (82%).

So while employers may not want sick employees to come in for all of the health reasons discussed above, the reality is that an empty seat costs the organization real money.

To help prevent abuse of sick time, 16% of respondents require a doctor’s note for your typical sick-day (in cases of extended illness, notes are required more frequently).

Other disciplinary actions are sometimes used (e.g., points-systems and “no-fault” attendance policies), particularly within industries where a missing employee for the day has more dire consequences for the company’s overall productivity and ability to conduct core functions. On the flip-side, some companies try to incentivize appropriate use of sick-time by allowing those designated days to convert to vacation days at the end of the year or be cashed out after a given time period.

However, critics of this “positive reinforcement” approach argue that this still puts pressure on employees to come to work sick in order to hold-out for the incentives.

Normalizing Wellness

Despite all of this talk about abuse of sick-time and the high costs of unscheduled absenteeism, for the vast majority of employees who do follow the rules, more than likely your organization should be erroring on the side of encouraging (not punitively discouraging) employees to stay home when they are sick.

Ways to do this include:

Provide flexible work options (when applicable), e., work from home/telecommute.

Obviously this is not an option for all industries or positions, nor should every sick-day turn into a work from home day.

If the employee is feeling up to getting some work done, but has a cold that they don’t want to share with the rest of the office, working remotely can be a great compromise.

With that in mind, employers should also be careful of simply setting up a new avenue through which employees will feel “pressured” to work through their illness. Remember, the end goal really is to get the employee well again.

Provide a generous paid sick-leave offering.

As stated above, employees shouldn’t have to worry about if they are really “sick enough” to warrant taking a sick day or trying to decide if they “might get sicker” some other time during the year. Doing so will simply increase the likelihood that they will show up and get other employees sick too.

If your workforce includes a large number of parents with young children or even slightly older workers who may be caring for an aging parent, keep in mind that they may struggle to take their own sick days, if they’ve already used them all up taking time off to be a caregiver.

And of course, as is the case whenever extended medical leave (either for themselves or for a family member) might be in the cards, make sure your managers know when to come to HR to inquire about FMLA.

Have HR, managers/supervisors, etc. communicate the company policy and philosophy on sick time with employees.

Whether your company is committed to letting employees take as much time as they need to get better or you just want to be sure employees know how to use their sick time appropriately to avoid abuse, this message is most compelling to employees coming from their direct supervisors. The supervisor is more than likely who they will need to be in touch with when they have to call off sick, so developing strong, positive, trusting supervisor-employee relationships is key.

By having frank conversations around sick-time expectations, both parties will have the confidence needed to stay home when they really need to get better as well as to trust that the direct report is using good judgement in making that decision.

You will need full buy-in to make wellness a priority—that means from everyone.

As with any new policy or practice that you want ingrained into your organizational culture, management needs to model the behavior that you want to see repeated.

This might be difficult, particularly if your management team and C-suite is full of super motivated go-getter, not to mention there is probably less redundancy in job duties the further up the line you go.

But as it turns out, the CEO’s cough is just as contagious as her secretary’s cough, so try to stay home no matter where you fall in the organizational chart.

View ERC's Policies & Benefits Survey Results

This survey reports policies and benefits information for 1,595 participating organizations throughout the country, including 88 from Northeast Ohio.

View the Results

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