Chicken Soup for the Province
Years ago, the restaurant chain Jack Astors had their servers wear outfits with funny one-liners on them, including one that read “I used up all my sick days so I called in dead.”
While it was always worth a chuckle, it also likely struck a note of truth with more than a few patrons.
In recent weeks the Province of Ontario has announced plans for a major overhaul in employment law that would create a seismic shift in the Province’s workplaces. While the plans for an increased minimum wage caught the most uproar, there were other proposed changes that deserved their own fanfare.
For example, under the proposed legislation if you are absent from work for less than 10 days due to illness, then you will no longer need a doctor’s note.
Under the proposed change, employees would be entitled to 10 personal emergency days per year, at least two of which must be paid. However, if they miss less than 10 days, due to the common cold or flu for example, they will not have to drag themselves out of bed to obtain a doctor’s note in order to return to work.
In outlining the policy, Ontario’s Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn called doctor’s notes a “waste of resources,” as patients forced to attend a doctor’s office for a cold they can easily treat at home instead produce overcrowded, germ-infested waiting rooms.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins highlighted the fact that sick notes are usually a matter of standard course between doctor and patient, as the doctor will usually trust that the patient has a cold and is being honest about their condition. Unless a patient is in serious distress, most doctors would likely not bother with expensive and invasive testing to diagnose a common cold.
To examine the news further, and in a tribute to Sergio Leone, here's a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly:
For employees, the news is almost universally acclaimed. There are few things more irksome or uncomfortable than dragging oneself out of bed during an already irritating illness, only to hear a doctor reiterate what the patient already knew.
There is also a significant public health consideration at play. Individuals who assume themselves to be contagious will be able to stay home and recover, rather than expose those ‘germ-infested waiting rooms’ to even more contaminants. Additionally, medical practitioners will be able to devote more time to individuals who need more complex or urgent care, rather than wasting their time with frivolous notes.
The new policy is, of course, largely based on trust. It is inherent within the framework that an employer trusts employees not to abuse the new allowance. That said, the traditional employer-employee relationship is already largely based on trust, and this additional freedom is much like any others that are part of the day-to-day working environment.
If employers are truly concerned, they can set up unique discipline policies within the framework of the law that allow penalties for any misuse or abuse of sick leave. Dishonesty and fraud are serious violations of that trusting employment relationship, and dealing with them quickly and thoroughly can help minimize any negative impacts on the larger workplace.
The change in the law will also need to bring about a change in employers’ traditional thinking. For many human resources professionals, a sick note was not just a matter of course, but it was seen as outside confirmation that an individual would be well enough to return to work after a certain period of time, and thus unlikely to infect the rest of the office. Without these sick notes however, employers will again be relying on that trust relationship, not just that employees are not abusing the process but also that they are will only be returning to work when they are no longer contagious.
The ugliest part of this policy is really the colds and flus themselves. Both Liberal and Conservative MPPs seem to agree that the change is a positive one, and will help sick Ontarians get better without forcing them into work and thereby contaminating their co-workers.
For employers, the main lesson here is to document everything! While the policy change gives employees the benefit of the doubt, record keeping will be helpful in preventing abuses and issuing any necessary discipline, if required. The new rules impute an added level of trust into the employer-employee relationship, which will hopefully serve to benefit most workplaces.
For employees, stay home if you’re sick! That is the ultimate moral of the story. If you are seriously unwell it is always advisable to seek medical attention. However, for a simple cold or light flu, the best advice is to rest and stay hydrated, and not to stress about a few missed days of work in the meantime.
The bottom line is that the Ontario government is telling employees to stay home and get well if they’re sick. Perhaps this may be just the first step towards provincially-mandated chicken soup…