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Sick Shaming Rampant in the Workplace Amid COVID-19, Flu Surge

Shot of a businesswoman blowing her nose while looking at a cellphone in an office

At a time when COVID-19 and flu cases are rising throughout the country—and the workplace—a new report finds that sick shaming is almost as widespread, causing employees to either feel guilty about taking sick time or, worse yet, come to work sick.

A survey of 1,000 managers from Resume Builder found that 20 percent of managers say they encourage workers to come into the office even when they are sick. Surprisingly, 45 percent of these managers (11 percent of the total sample) admit to “often shaming visibly sick workers” who then come into the office after they were told to.

A quarter said they think workers “lie or exaggerate their illness,” and 34 percent often ask for medical documentation as proof of illness for workers who request a sick day. Additionally, 27 percent of managers overall believe a culture that encourages sick employees to work is good for productivity. The survey was conducted in January.

The results signal a troublesome trend, and one that can backfire on the workplace, said Julia Toothacre, Resume Builder’s resume and career strategist.

“Having a culture where workers are asked to work or just expected to work when sick is bad for companies because it enforces the view that companies only see [employees] as a number versus a human being,” she said. “It creates a culture that lacks empathy and ultimately doesn’t care for its employees’ health, well-being or productivity. People who are sick are more likely to make mistakes and can be slower to comprehend. It doesn’t make sense to encourage sick people to work when they aren’t 100 percent ready to work.”

Meanwhile, other industry experts recently told SHRM Online that employers should do the opposite and tell employees not to come into offices when sick—especially as the country experiences more cases of COVID-19 and flu. COVID-19 cases are currently surging, with hospitalizations and deaths having spiked post-holidays. Flu cases have also been on the rise for the past several weeks.

Although the COVID-19 and flu surge will cause higher rates of employee absences, employees coming into offices when they are sick will lead to much worse outcomes: getting more workers sick and taking a serious hit on employee productivity and absenteeism, experts said.

Even if it seems helpful in the short term to keep employees working, long-term issues will likely arise that will impact more staff and even customers or clients. Ensuring sick employees stay home and take advantage of paid sick leave can keep a staff outbreak at bay.

“It’s important that people have sick leave, and it’s important that we discourage people who are sick from coming to the workplace,” said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader with WTW in Boston. “Nobody should feel like they’re going to be harshly judged because they call in sick or they do their work virtually.”

Toothacre called the Resume Builder survey findings shocking in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and a shift in attitudes about catching and preventing viruses. “Why are we promoting having people in the office who can spread any kind of illness around? There is now an option for many people to take work home when they aren’t feeling well.”

Still, she added, while employees should be given the opportunity to work from home if they feel up for it, managers should also encourage employees to take advantage of paid sick leave so they can recuperate.

Giving employees the option to either work from home or not work at all and take paid sick leave “without any pressure would be the best course of action,” Toothacre said.

Clearer Policies, Communication Needed

Sick leave is one of the most offered employee benefits, with SHRM’s 2023 Employee Benefits Survey finding that 95 percent of employers offer it. Meanwhile, a variety of state, federal and local laws also require paid sick leave for employees.

But experts said that clearer policies—and attitudes—about paid sick leave are still desperately needed.

Well over half of managers surveyed by Resume Builder (65 percent) say clearer sick leave policies are definitely (32 percent) or probably (33 percent) needed in their workplace.

Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at Optavise, a Carmel, Ind.-based benefits administration firm, said organizations would benefit from communicating with employees about available paid-sick-leave benefits and encouraging them to take sick time if they need it. That task is especially important now as employees struggle with more illness exposure. Buckey also said some organizations may want to think about adding other sick-leave policies, like extra time off for a COVID-19 infection, as cases surge.

Without clearer policies and allowing employees to take advantage of their benefits when they need to, employers will likely lose out on talent, Toothacre added.

“Stringent or unofficial sick policies will create an unsupportive environment for employees, ultimately resulting in organizations losing talent,” she said. “Employees are people, and they want to be seen as such. They get sick, they have hard days, their family members get sick, and life happens. The average employee won’t take advantage of the system if they are in a supportive and flexible culture.”


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