Staying Home When Unwell – Managing Sickness

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Sick worker at home

There is a steadily beating drum in the media advising the whole country to stay home when we are unwell. But is this realistic? As a business owner, it’s a tough call to not go in if we are feeling under the weather. And what about our employees – is it as easy as it sounds?

A few (sobering) facts and figures

The numbers of people absent from work due to sickness are the highest they’ve been in the last five years. According to StatsNZ, in the three months to March this year, 44,200 employed people were away from work for a full week or more because of sickness, illness or injury. This is up two-thirds on the same period last year. There was also a 21% increase in the number of people who said they were working fewer hours in a week than usual because they, or someone they were responsible for, were sick or injured. As we head into the colder winter months, flu cases have begun to spike, COVID-19 cases are increasing and there is concern about the potential for outbreaks of other illnesses. Businesses are likely to see a continuation of high levels of absence due to sickness.

The ins and outs of sick leave

Sick leave is there to help people take care of themselves or their dependents. It assists efficient recovery from accident or illness and helps prevent transmission of illness in the workplace.  All employees are entitled to ten paid sick days a year after they have been employed by the same business for six months continuously (or met criteria on average hours). This entitlement doubled on 24 July last year so note that you may still have some employees who have not yet reached their leave anniversary and only have five days.

Some workplaces offer more than the minimum sick leave entitlement, or even uncapped sick leave. These tend to be big organisations although we are seeing an increase in smaller companies offering extra leave policies too.

The other side of the coin

Are people still going to work if they are feeling sick? It’s likely they are, particularly if they have used up their sick leave allowance. We’re in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis and people may not be able to afford to take sick leave if it is unpaid.

According to AUT Professor of Human Resources Management Jarrod Haar, “banks and landlords don’t say, ‘hey, I realise you’ve had a poor week of health this week, don’t worry about paying the mortgage or the rent, that one’s on me’. This is going to make workers who aren’t well still continue to work.”

Logic says these people are likely to be less productive – and there’s the risk they’ll spread illness to others.

What happens if your employee has used all their sick leave?

If all this “staying home when you or your dependent is unwell” means your employee runs out of sick days, what happens next? Options include allowing your employee to take sick leave in advance, use annual holidays, take unpaid leave, or you could continue paying them. Extra sick leave costs your business, but it could ultimately be less than the cost of an unwell and unproductive workforce.

Medical certificates

Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Bryan Betty is asking employers to think about waiving the requirement for medical certificates or at least extending the time period for which they are required. You have a legal right to ask your employees to provide a medical certificate at their cost after three days of illness. The inconvenience of going to a doctor just to get a certificate to be paid sick leave can help prevent non-genuine absence. However, if you aren’t concerned about the sickness being genuine you could choose to waive this requirement. This saves your employee time and money and helps ease the burden on the overstretched medical system too.

Creating a culture of wellness

Finally, results of the 2021 Southern Cross Workplace Wellness Report indicated that employers were increasingly sending the right signal to employees about and staying home if unwell. There is still room for improvement though. By taking time off when you are sick (however difficult that might be) you send a message to your employees that recovery is the priority. And wellness initiatives aren’t just for big corporates. Simple steps you might take include promoting and funding the flu jab, extra cleaning of shared resources over winter, servicing air conditioning in shared office spaces or providing hand sanitizer, tissues and fruit over the winter period.

We previously talked about supporting staff who are sick. With the struggle to retain great staff being an issue at the moment, offering extra sick leave or wellbeing benefits could also be a good retention strategy for your business. These policies can be taken advantage of, so give us a call if you would like to discuss options and how to structure sickness or wellness policies that work for your business.

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