Financial Post: January 14, 2014. All Rights Reserved.
I was gobsmacked when I heard that on behalf of Ontario’s doctors Scott Wooder, president of the Ontario Medical Association, had declared that employers should no longer be able to ask employees for sick notes.
My initial presumption was he was either being misquoted or was making an early bid for the most idiotic comment of 2014. But then the Nova Scotia Medical Association chimed in, agreeing with him.
After all, Dr. Wooder explained, we don’t want ill employees filling doctor’s offices or taking up their time. Wait a minute. Isn’t the doctor’s office exactly the place where sick people are supposed to go?
Although Dr. Wooder’s example related to flu season, his recommendation was more general. What his argument misses, however, is the law. Employees are only permitted to call in sick when they are disabled from working or contagious, not when they are feeling a little off. Employers, for their part, are required to accommodate ill employees by modifying their jobs to ones that they can perform.
For example, if a disability prevents someone from being able to concentrate, the employer can find that employee a job, say, stuffing envelopes. Employees, according to the Supreme Court of Canada in Renaud v. Central Okanogan School District, are required to co-operate. To do this, employers need doctors’ notes delineating what the employee can do, what their specific limitations are and when they will likely recover. The average note doctors provide ie. “Johnny is too sick to work for the week” are unhelpful to everyone.
The Conference Board notes that illness in the Canadian workforce is a $16-billion a year problem for our economy – or rather employers, in the form of overtime, lost productivity, missed sales and the burnout and stress of other employees who pick up the slack from absent co-workers. That is assuming these employees are actually sick.
Dr. Wooder suggests employers simply accept the word of their workers, claiming doctors should not be employers’ truant officers. While that sounds good in theory, in reality, if workers never had to authenticate claimed illnesses, sick leave claims would skyrocket.
Since Dr. Wooder made his statement, the Toronto Transit Commission has announced that its sick leave incidence among unionized workers declined substantially after it required doctors’ notes. Even at that, the claims remain far more than double the average for their managers.
In addition, few employers require employees to obtain doctors’ notes every time they call in sick. I don’t have a single client, anywhere in this country, with such a policy. Employees are asked for notes either after being away for a certain number of days – for most employers that is three or five – or only after showing a suspicious pattern of absence, such as regularly absenting themselves on the days before or after long weekends. For the most part, the employees most upset by such patterns of absences are the co-workers who have to pick up the slack and are anxious to have their employer force those employees to prove they are actually ill.
In the absence of sick notes, the $16-billion costs to the economy would likely escalate dramatically. If more employers required sick notes, on the other hand, there might be a significant decrease in that number, even if merely by making it as convenient to come to work as to wait at the doctor’s office and worry whether the doctor will certify them as disabled.
Who takes the most sick leave in Canada? By wide margins, its the public sector, unionized employees and women. While the public sector and unionized employees do so because they are the most protected and entitled groups in society. Women on the other hand are neither more ill nor indolent – in the absence of a family policy they call in sick when they need to remain home with a sick child. And rather than take that time off without pay, which employers must legally accommodate, they call in sick.