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Bringing our germs to the office
By  CMG  •  Posted on  May 10, 2013

By Steph Guthrie

These days, workers are more afraid than ever to take sick days from work, even when they have sick leave allotted in their employment agreements. In a survey conducted by Canada Life Group, a third of workers said they’d go into work if they had the flu, and 93% would still go to work if they had a cold. Of course, many of the survey’s respondents also indicated they had contracted an illness from a colleague who came into the office under the weather.

So what are workers afraid of, specifically? The most common answer was a fear of work piling up while the worker is away from the office. Other popular reasons for toughing it out while sick include fear of judgment from colleagues, and fear of losing one’s job.

These reasons make sense in the context of the long-term recession in which we’ve been mired since 2008. As more and more workers are laid off, the redistributed work adds to each remaining employee’s load, ramping up the pace of work and making the loss of a single day seem monumental.

In a climate where job loss looms around every corner, people are naturally concerned about the potential of being let go. They may also feel a heightened sense of competition with their coworkers – an urge to make a superlative impression in the event of another round of layoffs.

Finally, sick leave has figured prominently as a target in recent public service labour negotiations, and many unionized workers have seen their sick leave benefits slashed. Coverage of these disputes tends to emphasize the high cost of absenteeism and the potential for workers to malinger, rather than the cost to our health care system if people do not give themselves time to rest and recover from illness. This coverage may contribute to an environment in which workers do not feel comfortable using sick days for fear of attracting negative attention from their employer.

If the situation is this bad for physical illnesses like colds or the flu, imagine how debilitating mental illness would have to get in order for people to feel comfortable taking time off from work to cope with it. Very few workplaces offer paid time off for mental health reasons. People living with mental illness face lingering stigma and overwhelmingly common “stiff upper lip” types of responses, both in the workplace and elsewhere in their lives. And let’s face it – often our workplaces play a significant role in the state of our mental health.

No matter which way you slice it, the Canada Life Group survey results are disconcerting, especially when one considers a strong majority of Canadian employers would rather their employees take a day to recover than come into the office sick. Perhaps they need to ensure their employees are receiving that message by reiterating it explicitly and regularly.

How sick do you have to be to take a day off work? Have you ever been fired for taking too many sick days? Are you paid for your sick days or do you have to eat the paycheque when you take time off? Tell us in the comments!

Steph Guthrie is the moderator of the MediaTech Commons. She’s an internet animator and a full-time feminist. You can join her at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here. Already a member? Log in here.

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