How will we use sick days after COVID-19? Experts weigh in

Photo: Kelly Sikkema

How the novel coronavirus shapes our lives is beginning to take form. Social distancing is here for a while as businesses begin to reopen, enacting strict protocols to ensure the safety of both workers and customers as the COVID-19 pandemic carries on. Capacity will be limited in places like gyms and restaurants, and sports events will likely be fan-less until there is more clarity in the search for a vaccine.

As parts of the country begin to restart, we’re beginning to see how paramount ways the COVID-19 crisis has not only shaped lives, but office culture, too. The work-from-home stigma is dead after millions of workers were forced to work remotely during the pandemic, proving that the model works and even might be a mainstay for some companies like Twitter and Facebook. Workers are reluctant to head back to the office, even when businesses start to reopen, and the way our offices are designed may even have to be changed in order to provide more space and safety. Cultural preferences like business casual may become very casual and the way we work will likely be different, especially the way workers and companies approach sick days.

A recent study found that 78% of workers felt pressured to come to work despite feeling sick due to the stigma against calling out sick. A separate study said that 38% of workers still go to work even when they are sick. Whether it’s the stigma of feeling like you’re not contributing, or your boss chiding you to come in for a few hours, the coronavirus pandemic will make both employers and workers think twice about coming to the office when they feel unwell.

“The general nature of taking sick days will become a more valued protocol at companies,” Hibob HR expert Rhiannon Staples told Ladders. “When people are unwell, they should feel empowered to disconnect and take the time to recuperate. Carving out time for self-care is vital to one’s wellbeing and overall productivity. Employees will have to further recognize that boundaries are important – just because it’s possible to work from home while sick, doesn’t mean it’s necessary to.”

How should workplaces rethink the cultural approach to sick days

Sick days are a tricky topic to navigate. There are certainly some places that encourage workers to use them more freely, whether it’s because they just aren’t feeling like themselves one day or they want to use it for additional vacation time. Other environments make it feel like you’re breaking an invisible rule, where if you’re not present for your job, you’re not committed to work. As people can be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, it can spread to others almost invisibly, which sparks the discussion of how things will change.

Staples said things like flexible schedules and allowing staff to work remotely — both key elements in how businesses are adapting during COVID-19 — should be priorities for companies at this time and moving forward. She said it’s designed to benefit both worker and employer in the long run because it allows workers to care for their own wellness and prevent the spread of illness in the workplace.

While the number of sick days varies between companies, it’s also a factor that professionals should pay more attention to, whether applying to somewhere new or negotiating next time to move forward.

“Companies should also make it a point to value mental health equally as important as their physical health,” Staples said. “With stress at a high this year, offering mental health days and floating holidays can demonstrate that a company values mental health, mindfulness, and overall wellbeing of their staff.”

How employers should approach sick days

“The pandemic has taught the working world the value of staying home when feeling under the weather,” Staples said. “In terms of an increase in paid sick leave, it’s best to approach each situation on a case by case basis. HR managers can consider evaluating the number of additional sick days, and even extend a WFH policy for a few weeks once the employee feels well again.”

One way companies can approach sick workers is by amping up paid sick leave. Staples said it can be approached on a case by case basis. She also explained other options such as extending a work-from-home policy after an employee gets sick, which could ease tensions of coming back to the office too soon.

“Companies have learned the importance of taking time to rest and recuperate before coming back to the office,” she said. “Companies will continue to experiment with and implement work from home plans, and since this has largely proven effective, it can be a great option for those who feel that coming back to work in the office puts themselves or colleagues at greater risk.”

Do workers need to provide a reason for taking a sick day?

Despite your relationship with your boss, sometimes it might feel like you need to provide an excuse for taking a sick day. But the real answer is — you don’t.

“If a worker is requesting a day off, they do not need to provide an excuse to their manager, and employers should respect any privacy the employee may want to keep,” Staples said. “Companies should also promote a sense of trust in their staff, as trust and transparency are key to happy and supportive company culture.”

Staples said that if you are out of the office for a few weeks or an extended period of time, it might be wise to inform your manager or HR about what you are dealing with to support your absence.

“This transparency can also help an employee’s manager potentially help build a WFH strategy for a couple of weeks before the employee returns,” she said.

She also suggested making sure any sick day requests are sent online in order for there to be written documentation.