A man wrapped up in a blanket holding a cup of tea while staring a laptop, symbolising working on sick days.
Image: © dusanpetkovic1/Stock.adobe.com

How will remote working change how we view sick days?

25 Feb 2022

From sickness presenteeism to the ongoing workplace wellbeing challenges, managers have to consider how they look after staff from afar.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it an overwhelming desire from many employees to continue remote working, even after the pandemic is over.

There are many benefits employees have been able to enjoy as a result of working from home, including the lack of commute, the flexibility and less office politics.

However, while the positives of remote working are clear, that’s not to say there aren’t some challenges that need to be addressed, including loneliness, proximity bias and the dangers of burnout.

Another potential challenge that needs to be addressed, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic, is how we treat sickness and sick days when it comes to work.

Indeed, the importance of self-isolating when showing symptoms of illness have become of critical importance in slowing the spread of Covid-19 and many have talked about how this needs to be a more common practice when showing symptoms of any illness.

However, remote working often means that people can both self-isolate and continue working when sick, even when they should possibly be resting.

Last year, software company Skynova surveyed more than 1,000 employees who started working from home during the pandemic. Four in 10 respondents said they had not taken any sick days since they began remote working. However, 62pc said they worked through physical illness and 48pc said they worked from home while dealing with mental health issues.

Closer to home, a Laya Healthcare survey of employees in Ireland in September 2020 found that 80pc of respondents said they had not taken any sick days since March 2020.

Being able to keep an eye on emails while resting in bed can have its benefits, but it’s important that managers do not let ‘sickness presenteeism’ take over the workplace culture, where people feel the need to keep working through illness just because they are able to stay at home while doing so.

Elysia Hegarty, associate director and wellness lead at CPL’s Future of Work Institute, said the last few years have seen an increase in presenteeism rather than sick days – something that remote working has made easier.

“Covid aside, one of the main contributing factors to presenteeism and/or absenteeism is stress-related and the ‘always-on’ mode which has increased since working from home,” she said.

“Organisations can tackle this by supporting their employees with workload management, providing stress management and mental health services as well as tackling the always-on culture.”

Manchester Metropolitan University’s Dr Alison Collins previously highlighted the risks associated with sickness presenteeism. She noted that several studies have shown that working while sick can increase the risks of poor health in the future and make it more likely for workers to need time off due to sickness later.

“Sickness presenteeism also has consequences for your mental health. Research shows that if someone had worked while ill in the previous three months, their psychological wellbeing took a knock,” she said.

Increased focus on wellness

While the danger of sliding into sickness presenteeism may be higher for remote workers, Hegarty said there are reasons to be hopeful about the future of workplace wellbeing.

“The pandemic has catapulted the focus on workplace wellbeing priorities forward by years,” she said.

“We have seen an increasing demand in providing wellbeing solutions to employees across all business sizes, sectors and budgets. Organisations that never had a wellbeing programme are implementing one, and for others more budget is being dedicated to it as employers not only see the need but the value.”

Now that employers have been given the green light to return to the office, should we be concerned that those new efforts around workplace wellbeing will be forgotten?

“In more cases, we are seeing wellbeing of employees being included in future workplace strategies that we’re developing with clients,” said Hegarty.

“Employee wellbeing is being considered in all phases of the return to office, the development phase, the pilot phase and the implementation phase of the future workplace strategy.”

Ongoing challenges

While Hegarty remains positive about the focus on wellbeing in this new phase of work, there will continue to be challenges for leaders when it comes to looking after their staff. From a remote working perspective, managers need to think about isolation and loneliness, as well as the expectation that people who are sick can still work while at home.

Companies going hybrid need to think about what that means for in-office staff versus remote staff and consider the risk of proximity bias leaking into the culture. And for those planning a full return to the office, leaders need to think about how things have changed over the last two years and how this might affect employees.

All of these challenges can be hard for leaders to manage, especially from a distance when remote working is still a factor.

“We also need to question the upskilling of leaders to enable them to not only lead at a distance but to be able to identify when an employee is really struggling. This is going to be a big challenge for remote working,” said Hegarty.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see employers make is that they don’t co-create their wellness programme with their employees.”

She added that a major pain point for employers is when they put budget, effort and an abundance of activities into a wellness programme, only to be met with a lack of engagement from staff. “This is because the programme is typically designed by one function without the input of the employees,” she said.

“Listening to employees and including them in the design phase is imperative to launching a wellbeing programme that is both meaningful, engaging and impactful. This is going to be even more important as we move into new ways of working and creating engaging programmes that are diverse enough to engage people remotely and in person.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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