Working while ill? Why some employees are taking fewer sick days while working from home

SINGAPORE: When Helen’s five-day medical certificate or MC ran out, she started working from home, although she was still COVID-19 positive.

The executive in a logistics firm told CNA that unless she produced an MC, the company would have deducted the days off from her annual leave. 

As she didn’t want to see a doctor for another MC, she decided to work although she had a sore throat, felt tired and feverish. She said she also lost her sense of taste.

“They discourage people from taking sick leave,” Helen said, adding that she’s “not happy” with her company’s inflexible policy. She did not feel comfortable using her real name.

Daniel, a sales executive who got COVID-19 recently, said he also had to work while in isolation. 

He said that one of the concerns his supervisors had was whether he would be contactable during this period.

“I tried to minimise the work during my quarantine because I wasn’t really feeling well,” he said. 

“Sometimes if I’m on leave (and they call me), I’m fine. But this time, I really wasn’t feeling well … I felt a bit disappointed.”

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With more than 10,000 new cases every day in Singapore’s latest wave of the coronavirus, more people are falling ill and the Ministry of Manpower has warned that staff absences could rise.

But with working from home becoming much more common, many are forced to continue working or choose to work instead of taking time off.

Mr Aman Ullah, 57, for instance, decided to complete the tasks he felt were urgent while recuperating from COVID-19 last September.

His symptoms were mild, he said, and while the manager at Narada Asia Pacific said there was no pressure from his company, he decided to start working after two days of rest.

“My nature of work is that I’m working on international tenders and local tenders … And (for) some tenders there are timelines. I feel responsible … if the tender is closing next week, I have to work on it even if I’m normally sick,” he said.

68% DID NOT TAKE ANY LEAVE FOR 12 MONTHS: SURVEY

Data from surveys done by Engagerocket last year showed that a majority of workers (68 per cent) did not take any leave at all for the last 12 months – whether it is annual leave, sick leave or other types of leave.

This is “contrary to what we would expect in a pandemic”, said the HR tech firm.

The surveys covered more than 7,500 respondents across companies from multiple industry segments in Singapore from mid-April to mid-May last year.

They also showed that about 59 per cent of people who continued to work while sick were “not opposed” to working while unwell.

Mr Leong CheeTung, co-founder of EngageRocket, said that there may be less incentive for people to take sick leave now.

“I think people feel, especially now when actually there’s zero risk of infection if you’re working (from home), they feel less … social responsibility than they otherwise would (to stay home when sick),” he said.

He added that workers generally try to avoid being the “bottleneck” of a project or work process, and so will try to “accommodate” even if unwell. 

“I guess in the minds of most of these workers, there’s no physical barrier to getting the work done. They think: ‘I could still help unless I’m completely wiped out,’” he added.

REST FOR MENTAL WELL-BEING

But Mr Leong said that he encourages workers to rest if they are ill, as he thinks that is better for their mental well-being.

“(Working while sick) imposes a mental toll on people that builds up over time … Unless you are acutely aware of it, it can easily erupt at a very inopportune time, which will then create additional costs downstream,” he said.

Some possibilities are that the employee has a mental breakdown, sabotages the company or takes out his or her frustration on other people.

Besides whether the company provides statutory leave, workers also need to feel “psychologically safe” to take leave, said Ms Antoinette Patterson, co-founder and CEO of Safe Space, a mental health tech start-up.

“I think what a lot of employers, HR managers can do better is to really be very open in their communication … and to encourage from a top-down level that their staff can go on leave, and encouraged them to utilise whatever benefits that they have,” she said.

While hard to measure, presenteeism has negative effects tied to it, because workers are just “showing up”, she said.

“Should they have taken that sick day, they would have been fully rested, and they can be more productive the next time they come back to work,” said Ms Patterson.

Both Ms Patterson and Mr Leong said that trust and communication within the company is vital to ensuring that workers feel safe to discuss frankly whether they need a break.

Mr Leong said that while companies can set policies, it’s often up to the individual team and team members to decide if unwell workers want to push on or would prefer to rest.

“It’s very much at the discretion of the manager … I think it’s more important that it’s okay to have that conversation within the team, than for the individual to feel scared of what the boss is going to say (when he wants to call in sick).”

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