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Working when sick: How workplace regulations and culture will impact the post-pandemic recovery

The Survey on Employment and Skills, conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research in collaboration with the Diversity Institute and the Future Skills Centre, was designed to explore Canadians’ experiences with the changing nature of work, including technology-driven disruptions, increasing insecurity and shifting skills requirements.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the clearest directives from public health officials has been that people should stay home and avoid contact with others when they are feeling sick. In practice, staying home from work is not that easy. Not all employees have access to paid sick leave, meaning that missing a day or shift of work has financial consequences. And many of those who have the option of taking a paid sick day may nonetheless be reluctant to do so because of a workplace culture that is not conducive to taking time off.

Efforts to improve public health and contain the spread of serious illness must focus on both the lack of paid sick days for many workers and the behaviour of those who have access to paid sick days but choose not to use them because of the prevailing workplace culture.

Key findings

One in two workers report that (prior to the pandemic) they would typically go into work if they were feeling a bit sick, and among these, two in five explain that they would do so because otherwise they would not get paid. Access to paid sick days is an important factor in explaining why some workers might go into work despite feeling sick, and others might not. 

Job security clearly translates into the ability to take time off when sick. Those who are more likely to go into work sick because otherwise they would not get paid include part-time workers; those working in sales or service occupations or in jobs relating to trades, transportation and manual labour; those with lower incomes; those working on a non-permanent basis; and those without a college diploma or university degree.

Access to sick days is only part of the story, as many Canadians go into work sick even though they have access to paid sick days. In fact, the most common reason why Canadians go into work despite feeling sick is a sense of responsibility to their job and coworkers, not because they need to work in order to get paid.

Executive summary

The pandemic has drawn attention to the need for those feeling sick to self-isolate to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus. But this study confirms that, prior to the pandemic, only two in five Canadian workers would likely have called in sick and stayed home from work if they woke up on a workday feeling a little sick (like they might be getting a cold or the flu). And even during the pandemic, two in five Canadians workers who have been to their workplace have done so at least once when they were feeling sick.

Access to paid sick days is an important factor in explaining why some workers go into work despite feeling sick, and others do not. Among those who say they would likely have gone into work anyway despite feeling sick (prior to the pandemic), two in five say it was because they had to show up for work, or else they wouldn’t get paid for that day. Conversely, a majority of those who would choose to stay home from work when sick report that they would still have gotten paid.

Nonetheless, lack of sick days is not the most common reason why some workers go into work despite feeling sick. More say it is because other people depend on them to be there to do their jobs, and they don’t want to let them down. Many also say they go into work sick because they have so much work to do and don’t want to fall behind. Workplace culture, including a sense of obligation to one’s job or co-workers, is thus an equally, if not more, important factor than access to sick days in explaining why some choose to go into work despite feeling sick.

Job security clearly translates into the ability to take time off when sick. Less securely employed workers (including part-time workers; workers with jobs related to trades, transportation or manual labour, or to sales or services; non-permanent employees; workers earning lower incomes; and workers without a university degree) are much more likely than average to say they would likely go into work sick because otherwise they would not get paid. Those more securely employed (including full-time and permanent employees), as well as men, those born in Canada to Canadian-born parents, and those who are not racialized, are more likely to report that they would still get paid when staying home from work due to illness. Yet more securely employed workers are also more likely to give a reason other than lack of sick days for going into work sick, such as saying they had so much work to do and didn’t want to fall behind.

Efforts to improve public health and contain the spread of serious illness therefore must focus on both the lack of paid sick days for many workers and the behaviour of those who have access to paid sick days but choose not to use them because of the prevailing workplace culture.

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