Why employees are taking more and more sick days every year

An epidemic of absenteeism

(Tory Zimmerman/Toronto Star)

(Tory Zimmerman/Toronto Star)

Governments lately have been sending workers a message: they’re sick of sick days. Last year, Ontario imposed a contract on public-school teachers that eliminated bankable sick days, while back in June, Treasury Board president Tony Clement vowed to fight federal employee absenteeism, which he said was costing taxpayers millions. But it’s not just a public-sector problem. New data show that all Canadian workers are taking more sick days than ever before, and the cost to the economy is immense.

A report from the Conference Board of Canada says absenteeism cost employers $16.6 billion in 2011 alone, while the C. D. Howe Institute shows the number of sick days per employee continues to increase. People aren’t taking off more time because they’ve grown lazier. They’re just older and more often female.

The fact that older workers take more days off is intuitive. Younger bodies can handle more stress. But the C. D. Howe report speculates that the rising number of sick days women are taking off—an average 2.9 more days a year than men—has less to do with illness than the fact that women are often saddled with taking care of both children and elderly parents. For many women, sick days end up being used for “take care of my kids while they’re sick” days. This ends up hitting the government purse since public-sector employees tend to be women.

Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, says that in order to tackle absenteeism employers first need to find out why employees are missing work. The Conference Board noted that less than half actually keep track of who’s taking time off and why.

One way employers are trying to solve the issue is by offering workers personal days instead of sick days so that employees don’t have to feign illness to miss work. Pau says this helps to foster trust in the workplace.“If they know the employer has more empathy and more sympathy, they’re going to work harder for you.” Other employers are instituting flexible working arrangements, such as telecommuting or setting “core hours” when workers have to be present, while allowing them flexibility with the rest.

For some jobs, more flexible work just doesn’t do the trick. It’s hard for a forklift operator to telecommute. Instead, Sari Sairanen, health and safety director for national union Unifor, doesn’t think the problem will get better until governments themselves step in to provide better child and elder care so that workers have options outside of just missing work. “The solution’s not just in the workplace. It’s societal, and it’s in government.”