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COVID-19 Creates Big Shift In Workers Taking Sick Days

Many companies could count on sick workers coming in to work anyway before the pandemic, but one survey reports that is no longer true. However, another survey finds sick workers continue clocking in.

sick 841165 640Younger workers are leading the way in making their physical and mental health a priority and taking advantage of sick days, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports. COVID-19 led to new norms that included people donning face masks, maintaining distance from one another and staying home even if they felt mildly ill.

“There used to be a tendency to come in, not put in your best work and risk making your colleagues sick, which is incredibly counterproductive,” Danielle Tabor, chief people officer at Emburse in Portland, Maine, told SHRM. “Since COVID, people have certainly changed that attitude, thankfully. Those who [work in] one of our offices know that they need to stay away, and even among our remote workforce, most people have adopted the mindset that it's better to take a day or two off and recuperate rather than work for three or four days at half speed.”

At Emburse, which has 900 employees, staff are permitted to take up to three days off at a time. “If someone says they are sick, there has to be an element of trust that they're telling you the truth,” Tabor said. “If someone is out for more than three days, our policy is to request a doctor's note, and obviously, if somebody takes way more sick days than normal without good reason, we'll ask their manager to keep an eye on things to make sure that it's not something more serious. But that's incredibly rare.”

SHRM cites a survey by Gusto, a payroll and employee services provider for employers, that found workers calling out sick more often. Of more than 300,000 small and mid-sized businesses, 30% of those employees in professional services industries and that have active paid-time-off policies had tapped sick leave this year. That is an increase of 42% from 2019. The average amount of sick leave time has also bumped up by 15% since 2019, averaging 15.5 hours annually.

Of workers taking sick leave, 32% of those age 25-34 have done so this year compared with 28% of those 35 to 54. “We're seeing ‘I need a day off to realign’ or ‘mental health day’ reasons more often,” Shri Ganeshram, CEO of San Francisco-based Awning, told SHRM. “I remember this one time, one of our developers, usually the never-sick kind, took a day off, citing mental exhaustion. It was a small alert to a larger pattern.”

In October, the governor of Ganeshram’s state signed a law amending a nearly decade old Act to boost the number of paid sick days that workers have a right to take every year. California Governor Gavin Newsom amended the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014, giving workers five days, or 40 hours, of paid sick leave versus three days, or 24 hours, JD Supra reports.

While the new law is not applicable to workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, “employers must now allow CBA employees who otherwise are exempt from the paid sick leave law to use paid sick leave for the diagnosis, care, or treatment of an existing health condition of, or preventive care for, an employee or family member, and, for an employee who is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking,” JD Supra notes.

Another survey that polled 1,565 full-time U.S. office workers, including 500 HR managers, from December 19, 2022 to January 4, 2023 came to a much different conclusion. Bamboo HR, a human resources software provider, found that 89% of U.S. employees still worked while sick over a 12 month span post-COVID, and 46% admit they probably should not have. Sick time policies offered by U.S. employers “foster a climate of suspicion and surveillance,” with 25% of those polled by Bamboo HR saying they have been pressured or definitively asked to come to work even if they were sick.

“The remote situation post-COVID-19 has made [managing sick leave policies] worse,” said Anita Grantham, Bamboo's head of HR. “You can be at home and still be on work calls. But working when ill doesn't serve the person, the company, or the customer.”

Yolanda Owens, career expert for The Muse, a career information site, told CBS News that it is incumbent on top leaders to set the example that taking sick leave is acceptable.

“It all starts there. When you have manager(s) in the hospital answering emails and taking meetings, that sends a message that you better not take time off,” Owens said. “If a manager says, ‘I am not feeling well, I'll get back to you when I'm feeling better,’ that is a much more positive response for people to follow.”

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