While many workplaces have shifted to hybrid arrangements coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, employment experts say workers should be cautious about using that added flexibility to work from home when feeling sick.
It’s a situation that some observers of remote working trends predict could become more prevalent as companies increasingly make their hybrid arrangements permanent.
“There is a bit of a return to . . . people’s comfort level with doing things while not feeling 100 per cent, but that’s not everybody by any means,” says John Trougakos, a University of Toronto professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management.
With a current uptick in coronavirus cases in Canada linked to two new variants, along with the usual cold and flu season, it’s crucial that both employers and employees take the time now to consider how to handle sick days, says Brittany Taylor, an employment lawyer at Stuart Rudner Professional Corp. “I’m expecting as we get into the fall, these issues are going to be more at the forefront.”
The growing popularity of hybrid working arrangements has been documented throughout the past year. As of May, 41 per cent of Canadian workers that were considered remote had hybrid schedules, splitting time between onsite and at-home work, up from a quarter the previous year, according to a report released last month by Indeed Canada.
Recruiting company Robert Half Canada Inc. found hybrid working arrangements were favoured by 54 per cent of hiring managers, compared to 49 per cent of workers, suggesting a growing alignment that could mean a mix of in-office and remote working could be here to stay.
Stephen Harrington, national lead for workforce strategy at Deloitte Canada, says while plenty of Canadian organizations have plans for how people can work flexibly, he hasn’t seen many prescribe rules around sick days. “This is very early days for organizations figuring out exactly how this is going to work for themselves and their workforce.”
People who work from home even part of the time are far more likely to consider working while sick than those who work from an office, he says. But that poses risks both for the worker, who could exacerbate their illness by not getting proper rest, as well as the employer, as evidence shows people aren’t as effective and are more prone to error when working while ill.
“I think there may be organizations that are underestimating the social and cultural pressures when you’re working and there are deadlines or you feel an obligation,” says Harrington.
Employees in hybrid working arrangements should proactively seek clarity from their superiors on what level of accommodation they should expect when it comes to illnesses and the remote aspects of their work, Taylor says, especially when it’s inconvenient or unsafe to come into the office.
That means checking whether they’re allowed to work from home while sick on a day of the week designated for in-office work and if so, whether that would mean they have to come in another day instead.
“Is it going to be a one-for-one scenario like that or is it a lot more flexible?” she says. “Ultimately, unless [an employee’s] employment agreement gives them the right to work from home at their discretion, the employer is entitled to set the rules of the workplace, including when remote work is going to be permitted. So understanding those rules as an employee is key.”
Trougakos says businesses would be wise to adopt hybrid working models that are less rigid about which days staff are required to come in. If the model isn’t well thought out and is put together in a cookie cutter way that lacks flexibility, then employers may run into pushback from employees, he adds. “There will be some issue when people are inevitably going to get the next wave of COVID, flu and whatever other illnesses are going to be popping up.”
Sunira Chaudhri, founder and partner at Workly Law, says, although workplaces have made efforts to offer accommodations in recent years, the balance of power has started to shift back to the employer. That has even played out with some employers using software to monitor their employees’ productivity when working remotely.
“I think flexibility comes with costs,” she says. “Employers have trended away from being as forgiving or tolerant of greater vacation and sick-day policies with remote workers.”
Chaudhri says it’s important for employers to set clear boundaries on whether they’ll even allow their staff to work while sick. She urged employees to adhere to those boundaries when they’re outlined.
“No employee should work while sick. A sick day should be a sick day and confirming that and being very clear actually increases morale. It increases communication and reduces friction and potential liability.”