Unsick days: A kitschy gimmick or a path to a healthier workplace?

Is it right to take a sick day to visit the doctor for preventative care such as physical exams, teeth cleaning and health screenings? Doing just that is the idea behind the Unsick Day program.

Started by a group of U.S. organizations, including New York-based digital health company Zocdoc Inc., the program provides time off for employees to attend preventative health appointments.

In embarking on the program, Zocdoc commissioned a study with consultancy firm Kelton that found that 60 per cent of American workers felt uncomfortable leaving work for preventative care appointments. In fact, Zocdoc found two-thirds of its own employees weren’t going to preventative care visits covered by the company’s insurance plan because of work. The program contends that when employees fail to go to preventative health appointments, the result is more sick days, reduced productivity and higher costs for employers.

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Buffer Inc., a San Francisco-based social media management company, was one of the program’s 12 founding partners. “Something that we’ve struggled with at Buffer in the past is getting employees to take vacation time,” says Hailley Griffis, Buffer’s public relations manager. “And that may sound kind of strange, but we had an unlimited vacation policy at one point, and people just weren’t taking time off of work. And we noticed the same for doctor’s appointments. . . . And Unsick felt like a really great way to give people a little bit more space and encourage them to take that time out of their workday and to be taking a little bit more time for themselves.”

Buffer launched the program for its 70 employees in late 2016 and started tracking the results last year. So far, employees have taken a total of 37 unsick days, according to Griffis. She says there’s no set limit on the number of unsick days employees use, as long as they don’t take advantage. The time is in addition to leave for regular sick and personal days.

Shining a light

Preventative health is in the interest of both the employer and employee, according to Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell Ltd. “I think [by] shining a light on it with an unsick day, part of the value is it brings that awareness that this is a good thing to do and what employers want employees to do,” she says.

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Allen notes many employers have a number of ways of allowing employees to take time for preventative health appointments, such as personal days. While employers may not have set guidelines in place on how to use personal days, Allen suggests part of the messaging would be to explain to employees that medical appointments are among the intended purposes.

Lisa Kay, president and lead consultant at Toronto-based Peak Performance Human Resources Corp., says her first thought when she heard about unsick days was they were a kitschy way of giving employees a unique benefit.

“I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing, but it’s just another day off and you’re giving it a title, right? But I like that it addresses people’s discomfort with doing something for themselves that doesn’t sound like a legitimate excuse to take a day off. But it really is,” she says.

When it comes to the employer impact, Zocdoc’s research found 49 per cent of U.S. workers would be more likely to work for or stay at a company that gave them time off for preventative care appointments. While Kay feels it would be tough to link a new type of leave to a significant change in the level of commitment or engagement by employees, she says that in combination with other benefits and a culture that promotes taking care of oneself, such a program would be good for retention.

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Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Vancouver-based Clear HR Consulting Inc., is also skeptical of the idea and suggests sick leave and personal days achieve the same purpose as an unsick day.

“It seems like what they’re trying to do is start this movement around preventative health,” she says, noting that if people aren’t seeing a doctor when they have paid sick time or personal days, another type of leave may not be the motivator they need to do so.

Ryan Murphy is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.