While the relevance of the sick note has been on the decline for years, recent events have reignited the debate over the worth and justification of sick notes.
At the center of the debate is the semi-famous sick note posted on Reddit five years ago from an Alberta doctor that urged an employer to reconsider their sick note policy. The response came after the employer required the doctor to justify why an employee was awarded sick off for short-term illness. “There are surely better ways of wasting your tax dollars,” the doctor concluded.
While the doctor’s argument was meant to reduce time-wastage in healthcare facilities, it strikes at the core of one of the most traditional tools for HR professionals.
In 2017, the relevance of the sick note in Canada was eroded further by lawmakers in charge of crafting employment standards legislation. Under Premier Kathleen Wynn, Ontario’s Liberal government introduced changes that prohibited employers from requiring their employees to provide sick notes for short-term absences. The changes lasted for months until 2018 when they were overturned by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government.
The events in 2020 prompted Ford’s government to reexamine the need to force workers to visit their doctor in this trying time just to get a sick note. The government included a prohibition on sick note requirements in the Employment Standards Amendment Act of 2020 for Infectious Disease Emergencies. Employees who have to take off from work because of illness don’t have to provide sick notes until the legislation is repealed.
The ban on sick notes will probably end when a vaccine is readily available, or the government determines that everything is under control. This possibility has already garnered some pushback from lawmakers like MPP Mike Schreiner of the Ontario Green Party. Schreiner introduced a private member’s bill to the Ontario legislature to make the ban on sick notes permanent in the province. The legislator argues that the decision to bring sick notes back was “reckless.”
Schreiner’s position is not new since health-care professionals have been saying sick notes are not worth it for years. Doctors have been questioning the relevance of sick notes as far back as 2014 when the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) took a stand against imposing this requirement on employees during the flu season.
“Forcing employees to obtain sick notes during flu season helped to spread it,” the OMA said.
Contagious employees are forced to either go to doctor’s offices or to work. They can either spread the flu at the doctor’s office or in their workplace. This argument is supported by a 2019 US study, which found a correlation between the employment rate, spikes in flu-related doctor visits, and the rate of infections. While this is concerning during flu season, it is particularly worrisome to force this dilemma on employees in the middle of a crisis.
2020 has put the arguments against sick notes into perspective, but its relevance goes beyond recent events. “In many cases, the doctor can only take the employee’s word for how they feel,” the OMA argued, “And it’s not an official diagnosis of any illness.” This argument makes employers’ requests for justification redundant. The displeased Alberta doctor and the OMA both agree that forcing employees to get sick notes from the doctor is costly and “can place an unnecessary burden on the health-care system.”
The pushback against the relevance of sick notes goes beyond the province of Ontario. Recently, the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association also urged its member physicians not to provide sick notes for patients if they didn’t assess them during the illness.
From the perspective of employers, sick notes are essential to deter abuse of sick leave by employees. To protect the bottom line, employers see the sense in ensuring that employees who call in sick are really sick. Supporting long-term sick leave with medical evidence provides enough information to help employers make informed decisions in the management of their workforce. The benefits of sick notes for long-term absences are undeniable. But its value is dubious when it comes to short-term absences. Restricting employees’ options to either spreading the illness at the doctor’s office or work can make things worse. Having the entire workforce on sick leave will hurt the bottom line more than an abused, sick day or two.
But what is the alternative for those sick of the sick note? Well, it may be a better idea for HR and the employer to trust that their employees know when they should stay at home. “There are better ways to waste everyone’s time and money,” said the good doctor.
Do you have questions about managing “sick notes” at your workplace? Reach out to the experts at Pivotal HR Solutions: