Over the past few years, the rise in remote work has become crystal clear. But an issue that remains hazy is the role of sick days for remote employees.
Two-thirds of remote workers are hesitant to use sick time, and 70% of respondents said they had worked through an illness, according to a 2020 survey by the medication company ColdCalm.
It may sound like a positive for remote employees to continue to work instead of missing time, especially since infecting coworkers at the office is not a concern. But research indicates that working while sick:
- Can increase the length of time that an illness hampers employees
- Is linked to higher rates of stress, depression and other mental health challenges
- Can lead to more employees needing long-term sick leave down the road
- Could be a contributing factor in rising rates of burnout and resignations
In addition, working through sickness can lead to presenteeism, which is when employees are physically working but at a lower level of productivity. The American Productivity Audit estimates that presenteeism costs companies more than $220 billion a year.
If you offer sick days that are going unused, it may be time to dig deeper. To address sick time for your remote employees, you should:
- Create clear guidelines
- Examine your culture
- Encourage time off
- Set an example
- Assess your sick leave policy
Create clear guidelines
It's important to set your organization’s expectations around sick time and then clearly communicate guidelines to all employees. This clarity will help executives, managers and employees feel good about their decisions to use sick time. Guidelines may include:
- Accrual rates and sick time currently available to each employee
- Physical symptoms that generally preclude working, such as fever, headache or fatigue
- When to use sick time for mental health considerations
- Methods for notifying supervisors and colleagues of sick time, including when an illness begins outside of work hours
- Out-of-office messaging for internal and external audiences
Your policy also should address expectations around checking emails or messaging platforms when employees are out sick. To guard against fears of retribution for using sick time, you should offer anonymous ways for employees to contact human resources with their concerns.
Examine your culture
An honest examination of your culture is necessary to align sick day policies with actual practice. Questions may include:
- Does your company promote work-life balance?
- Do employees take pride in long hours and compare how much they work?
- Is there an expectation that employees (remote, hybrid and in-office) will work remotely if they get sick?
- Are managers and employees on the same page in their view of sick time?
- Do managers encourage employees to take sick time but routinely work during their own illnesses?
- Is burnout or turnover increasing?
Once you understand your culture, you can start to address employee concerns about sick time. For example, surveys indicate that remote workers are less likely to take sick days because they:
- Want to prove their value to colleagues and company leaders
- Feel like they will fall behind on work or be left out of important projects
- Are afraid that employers will think they are taking advantage of remote work policies
- Don’t see colleagues or managers taking sick time
If those views hold true at your organization, consider internal communication campaigns and managerial training to reshape views on sick days.
Encourage time off
More organizations are looking at time off in terms of both preventive (e.g., mental health days) and recuperative (e.g., sick days) care. According to Forbes, studies show long-term health and productivity gains when employees take time away from the office. Encouraging employees to take paid time off increases the likelihood of its usage.
Regularly communicate your sick-day guidelines to employees, including:
- During onboarding
- At all-staff and department meetings
- In the employee handbook and other benefits materials
- Targeted emails for both in-person and remote employees
Be positive in your communications about sick time. Include your reasoning behind it, such as improving overall wellness and optimizing employee performance for the long term.
Set an example
Even with clear guidelines and encouragement, many employees will hesitate to use time off if they don’t see leadership or colleagues doing the same.
When leaders show up in the office or on Zoom meetings while sick, it sends a message that direct reports are expected to do the same. Likewise, when supervisors theoretically take a sick day but continue to send emails and/or make phone calls to their team, employees will feel pressure to work through their own illnesses.
Beyond just taking sick time when it’s needed, supervisors and other company leaders should highlight their reasoning — for example, to get back to full strength more quickly or to proactively address a mental health issue. This will set the tone for employees to follow.
Assess your sick leave policy
Reviewing your sick leave policy on an annual basis can help ensure that it meets the current needs of your organization and your employees. For example, some companies added paid sick days at the start of the pandemic. Others have instituted personal emergency days that can be used for any reason, including child care and elder care needs.
Talk to your insurance broker or benefits adviser about finding the right sick leave arrangement for your organization. They can help you:
- Examine your culture and demographics
- Comply with local, state and federal policies regarding paid sick leave
- Communicate your policy and guidelines to employees