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Paid sick days matter even more than you might think


In areas where income is dictated by hours worked, taking a sick day equates to loss of pay, forcing employees to mask their symptoms or other illnesses to maintain financial security. (Anatoliy/Adobe Stock)

Historically, paid sick leave emerged out of early union drives for employee rights — practices where unions helped entrench rights such as workers’ compensation, weekends, injury and illness protection, and paid holidays.

Larger employers with bigger unions embedded some form of sick leave in collective agreements, whether it was a periodic allotment, or an accumulation of sick days over time.

The practice then extended to non-union employees who were also granted similar benefits, creating a marketplace where larger employers with predominantly full-time, non-union, white-collar jobs developed paid sick leave programs as a competitive offering.

Pandemic effect

COVID-19 has highlighted that millions of vulnerable employees in the low-wage sector and those working entry-level, part-time jobs have no protection for sick leave.

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Ironically, those are also the jobs that have been deemed most essential, while at the same time being more exposed to the impacts of the virus, both medically and financially.

Concurrently, employer-employee discussions have shifted from “Are you really sure you’re too sick to come to work?” to “Please don’t come to work if you’re sick.”

In areas where income is dictated by hours worked, taking a sick day equates to loss of pay, forcing employees to mask their symptoms or other illnesses to maintain financial security.

According to Statistics Canada, absenteeism costs employers $16.6 billion annually, keeping more than 550,000 workers at home, or almost four per cent of the Canadian workforce away from work in any given week.

Employers expect their employees to bring their best to the workplace. A paid sick leave program — in case of an emergency, accident, unforeseen illness, or even for the short term — provides a measure of security that allows employees to be able to focus on what’s necessary at work.

Mutually beneficial paid sick days should be foundational to an organization’s brand and reputation.

Shift towards wellness

Today, there’s significant talk about improving physical and mental workplace health in post-COVID recovery, or implementing more well-being programs to help employees.

However, we’ve found that employees are less likely to engage in those programs and with their workplace if foundational protective benefits providing income security for unforeseen events — such as paid sick days — are not in place.

It has become a key differentiator in recruiting, when recruiters review sick leave benefits and their health protection plans, to attract a better workforce.

Pandemic or no pandemic, employers need to have an effective attendance support program and identify how they will enable their employees to use sick leave when they need it.

Looking ahead, three key themes are going to dominate the future of the workplace.

First, post-pandemic there will be more focus on supporting employee health, with a bigger drive around mental well-being: There’s a lot more vulnerability in the workplace, and the support to keep employees working and to help them stay at work is a fundamental need.

New well-being protections and programs will have to be created to support employees’ total health, rather than just treatment when they’re sick, helping to reduce absenteeism and the cost of paid sick leave programs.

Alongside employee health, workplaces need to consider attendance and productivity: Healthy, engaged and available employees are the backbone of any organization. The future is flexible, and that flexibility is going to vary based on job type and work location.

There is no going back to “everyone must be in the physical workspace, every day.” There are going to be more demands on flexibility from both employees and employers to manage work efficiently, because we’ve proven that it’s possible.

Flexibility means flexible programs to manage health and attendance. Dictating what is good for my physical and mental health is no longer the best approach. Meeting employees where they are is more important than a one-sized approach.

Finally, this leads to inclusive approaches. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are core to meeting employees where they are: The underlining statement is “don’t dictate my values; meet my needs.” 

Individualization of offerings allows people to be their best and bring their best to the organizational bottom line.

Provide mechanisms to allow employees to manage their health and family needs, create an environment where they are supported as individuals, and ensure they have the skills and tools to do the job.

Success lies in including your workforce and supporting them as individuals. The cost of doing nothing differently is not affordable.


Alex Boucher is principal and total health management practice leader at Mercer Canada. Mercer Canada has been a longtime sponsor of the SCNetwork, an HR peer-to-peer network in Canada.