How remote work could nix the sick day – BBC

Before the pandemic, ill workers quite often showed up in the office, coughing and spluttering away as they tackled their workloads. Today, fortunately, sick employees can often work remotely, keeping their germs to themselves. But this shift raises a new dilemma for workers. Exactly how ill do you have to be to take a ‘proper’ sick day from home?

Before, the choice was binary for most sick workers: power through despite feeling lousy and go to the office, or stay at home and abandon work for the day. Option one could mean keeping on top of your work (and pleasing the boss), while option two could potentially aid your recovery.

Now, it’s not so simple. Yes, colds or the flu can be debilitating, and people certainly might not be in shape to jump on a train and head for work. But for busy employees able to work from home, it can be tempting to continue firing off emails and performing daily tasks while coughing away on the couch, instead of taking proper time off to rest.

It’s a problem that could become more common as hybrid and remote work spreads. Polling data from the US suggests two-thirds of workers feel remote work adds pressure to work while sick; other polls suggest the same proportion feel obliged to clock in remotely, even if they’re sick. In the UK, sickness absence hit record lows in 2020, as people worked from home (but rebounded somewhat in 2021, partly due to an uptick in coronavirus cases).

Right now, data indicates many sick workers are logging in from home, and that ‘proper’ sick days are becoming increasingly rare. Experts say that both companies and workers need to stop and think about this shift – and its implications for productivity, company culture and worker wellbeing – before it becomes an entrenched practice. 

Sick day? Like any other day

People have always worked while ill; sickness absence had been falling before the pandemic, both in countries such as the US (which doesn’t have nationally mandated paid sick leave) and the UK (which does). But now, remote work has enabled ill people to crack open their laptops and work from bed – making skipping sick days in favour of presenteeism easier than ever.

Early in the pandemic, redundancy fears, combined with guilt and a fear of falling behind, caused many remote workers to log on while ill. Anecdotally, that trend has continued, even as the situation has stabilised, because widespread remote work has made things more complicated: we all know people who work from home while ill, if we don’t do it ourselves.

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