Cures For An Unhealthy Sick Day Policy


Have you every been involved or known someone in a circumstance similar to the one below?

An employee at a healthcare facility comes to work, obviously sick with the flu. Her colleague asks her why she’s at work and didn’t call in. The employee says that the managers have told everyone that if they call in sick they have to find their own replacement. The woman woke up an hour before her shift feeling ill, and no one answered her calls back to cover her. In addition, she cannot afford to take the time off because her sick time goes against her vacation time and she only has enough left in the year for the vacation her family has planned for months and cannot shortchange it. Finally, her company’s policy also states that for her to earn her her holiday pay she must work the scheduled shift before and after, and if she misses it even legitimately, she will lose out on the holiday pay for her previous day worked.

Does anyone see the fallacy of this policy model? If you see …

  • Sick time out of vacation time
  • Staff must cover own shifts
  • No missed or sick days around holidays

… Then you will discover a culture that is set up to fail.

While many of these challenges occur in the service sectors or manufacturing, where bodies are needed to cover the shifts, a culture such as this can be prevalent in any industry or company. Policies such as these create physical and emotional risk for the organization.

If we run through the example above (which is based on multiple real-life instances) we can see the following risks the employees company is taking:

  • Putting employees in positions where they have to work when ill
  • As a healthcare facility, increase of infecting their patients and other healthcare workers with illness
  • Disengagement of staff and distrust of managers who place the burden of covering the shifts on staff who are ill and should be resting
  • Policies that are in place due to prior abuse (hence the work the shift before-and-after a holiday rule) and penalize those who have a legitimate excuse
  • Staff not able to physically or mentally perform their jobs but are there doing so nonetheless
  • Staff feeling that they have to make a decision to sacrifice vacation time in order to be sick

In many industries, the risk of an ill person working and infecting others can have devastating consequences. Norovirus and hepatitis outbreaks in healthcare facilities occurs many times because employees had to work. Foodborne illness outbreaks in restaurants and cruise ships happened because staff were not excluded from the operation. And how many sick days accrued in a particular industry because a factory worker, mechanic, accountant, or teacher had to come to work because they were made to and thus infected countless other colleagues, customers, students, and vendors?

Sick day policies that are broken like these and others do no one any good. As an employer, the organizations greatest priority should be the care and well-being of their employees. Not just from a workplace safety standpoint, but in a health stance that takes into consideration staff who are ill and take steps to make sure they rest and recover.

So how can a company cure it’s unhealthy sick policy? Some ideas towards a solution:

  • Create a culture that allows people who are sick to rest without worry
  • Establish a team approach in which managers are committed to making sure their people rest and heal
  • Treat sick time as an obligation to the staff, not a time-off privilege that can be taken away
  • Ensure your staffing model allows for ample plans to cover shifts. Skeleton crews put pressure on staff to show up so they don’t let their co-workers down
  • Run your buy-back policy through. If you buy back 50% of unused sick time, do your employees work sick or call in to use it all so they don’t get shortchanged? Make this system work to everyone’s benefit
  • Are policies in place because of abusers? Handle the abusers individually, and don’t penalize great staff who happen to get sick
  • Leaders, make your response to illness compassionate and helpful. Guilting staff to come in because you may be inconvenienced is the surest way to build mistrust and resentment.

Illness happens, it’s a fact of life. And many times, it occurs at the worst possible moment. Your environment, professionalism, policies, and treatment of your people will either destroy your team and trust, or let them know you really and truly care for them as people.

Work to make your culture one of support and not the bacterial kind. Heal your sick day policies and create a stronger, happier, and healthier workplace.

(image: greyweed)


About Paul LaRue

My goal - To encourage you to lead & influence others with positive impact.

Posted on March.6.2016, in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great post. Two questions:

    1) Are you suggesting decoupling sick time from vacation time?
    2) What did you mean by “Run your buy-back policy through” and how would a buy back work? Pay staff 50% for unused sick time?


    • Hi Jay,

      Yes, I believe sick time should be detached from vacation time. Employees earn vacation, but do not earn getting sick. If we are to truly care for those in our workforce, we need to make sure they are engaged with their full vacation, and not be worried that a prolonged illness eats away at their benefit.

      Secondly, as with any system in your organization, you should run through the system to see every scenario play out. The example I used for a company’s policy of buying back 50% of sick time enabled more abuse of the system. If they had bought back 100% or none at all, everyone was convenient Ed the issues would decline. But also, the leadership of that organization needed to manage those that abused that or any system first.

      I hope this post helps generate some insight into better employee engagement for you. Best of luck!



  2. Reblogged this on Ardith Laverne and commented:
    Some Friday food for thought on sick days! I can’t believe the number of us who show up to work sick (and I’ve been guilty in the past of such–I do a much better job now). It’s not doing anyone any favors!


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