Doctors should not have to police the workplace

Russell Wangersky
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You’re treating the symptom, not the disease. Earlier this week, great hay was made over the fact that the province’s medical association is telling its members to stop writing employment sick notes for patients who haven’t been able to get to a doctor while they’re still sick, and to stop writing notes at all before a patient has been sick for five days.

It has, of course, predictably thrown employers’ groups into high dudgeon.

Listen to the employers’ representatives, and you’d swear the floodgates were about to open, and that the change would mean just about everyone in the province was going to stop showing up for work, fabricating the symptoms of pleurisy or gout or swine flu, lollygagging around at home and watching the soaps.

Why do employees call in sick? Well, most often, it’s because they’re sick — and if they’re sick, you probably don’t want them dragging around the office, getting very little done and infecting everyone else.

Apparently, we need doctors’ notes to prove that, because, I guess, the average worker in this province can’t be trusted to be a grown-up and go to work without an employer having a doctor’s-note stick to beat them with — and the employer’s too gutless to address that issue head-on.

In this province, despite our considerable long-term health concerns from bad diet and obesity, we’re probably no more likely to chalk up an extended number of sick days than anywhere else. Apparently, though, we do — the province’s employers’ council says people in this province take more sick days than almost anyone else, with the average worker calling in sick nine days per year.

So, if we have a sick day disease here, what do you suppose the problem is?

Truth is, employers in this province have a long history of treating their employees like indentured serfs.

Employees, trapped by geography and years of high unemployment rates, have traditionally accepted far less in salaries and benefits than employees in other jurisdictions.

 As the cost of living in this province rises — particularly the sharp increase in housing and rental costs — it should come as no surprise to employers that their employees want and need something more than occasional increases in the low one or two per cent.

And it should come as no surprise that, hemmed in by high prices and low wages, employees might end up feeling their employers owe them a little more in the way of sick time.

In all of this, the employers’ council wants doctors to serve as their sickness police: with all due respect, that says more about managing employees — or more to the point, not being able to manage them effectively — than it does about anything else.

The employers’ council has apparently decided that the lack of motivation that employees here seem to have is solely an issue with the employee. But here’s a fact; absenteeism is also connected to how employees feel about their work.

We have high absentee rates — why exactly?

Perhaps because employees neither feel valued, nor feel that their input is welcomed or even desired.

Make sure your employees feel valued and necessary, and they’ll only take sick days when they’re sick.

And I’ll repeat this for those whose reading usually ends at the bottom line of an accounting statement: sending workers off to the doctor’s office to get a note to back up what they’re telling you only says you don’t trust them, without you actually having to use your mouth-words.

The doctors are right: it wastes time with unnecessary appointments, wastes time spent sitting in waiting rooms cross-infecting other patients with whatever low-grade illnesses are making the rounds, and wastes time piling up the paperwork.

I’m a little tired of the whole current business model — sick days have to be policed by the health-care system, pension plans can’t be beefed up or protected because average workers shouldn’t get to have retirements, minimum wage levels should never change because, if there’s an inflationary pinch, low-wage workers can just do without nutritional food.

The model is sick, and no one’s bothering to look at the illness, because, deep down, that might actually cost employers something.

It makes me sick, too. And no, I’m not getting a note.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

 editorial page editor. Email:

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Recent comments

  • poisoned
    March 02, 2014 - 14:29

    Employers, the day of threatening employees with "there's 20 applications waiting to take your job" as a go-to controlling management tool are gone, thank God... You need to realize you don't have total control anymore and should actually try to WORK WITH your employees, not find new reasons to intimidate and "corporate bully" your employees. No wonder those of you who run 21st century sweat shops have difficulty with recruitment and retention - try treating your people with respect, and you just might get some in return. Sorry Richard Alexander - you and your sort are the problem, NOT the staff who have to work for you

  • Mary
    March 02, 2014 - 12:55

    Leave the fatties out of it. I'm over weight, don't miss a day of work, I'm on time, leave late and do extra all to prove I'm good enough or better. Next, we will be penalizing the assholes for being bullies.

  • jjcb
    March 02, 2014 - 12:51

    put them in a 5 step program which is progressive! eventually it come to termination

  • Lena
    March 02, 2014 - 12:40

    Create a positive environment in the workplace, let employees know they're appreciated and valued, and absenteeism will drop. Foster an atmosphere of suspicion and accusation by demanding sick notes and you'll have exactly the unhappy, unhealthy workforce you deserve. This group should move from the 19th Century into the 21st and give employees some credit for being responsible adults.

  • Petertwo
    March 02, 2014 - 12:14

    Who is being targeted, the private or the public sector people? People in the private sector generally have very little or no sick time. People in the public sector are unionized and have accumulated sick time, which if not used after a particular limit is reached, they do not then accumulate any more, unless they are sick. So sick time is encouraged, and they are generally well paid, and well protected, compared to the private sector. As manager noted, people who are continually sick, real or imagined, are a liability in instances where costs need to be tightly controlled or a business goes under and everyone loses their jobs, including the manager.

    • Julia
      March 02, 2014 - 16:22

      You need to check your facts Petertwo before shooting your mouth off and making broad unfounded generalizations. For many of us who work in PROVIDING health care, we get a very limited amount of sick days and they do NOT accumulate any more even if we are sick. Which would YOU rather: ensuring healthy nurses/techs etc are the ones taking care of you or ones who have colds/diarrhea/stomach flu etc who are FORCED to be there under threat of losing their jobs or not getting paid.

  • t
    March 01, 2014 - 21:44

    Well said!

  • Former newf
    March 01, 2014 - 20:57

    Sadly rent cost in Newfoundland are similar to here in Alberta. The difference here is that moving to Alberta has provided me and my family about 2000 more per month compared to the job offer I received in Newfoundland for the exact same job description. Are employers listening, I doubt it, and until they do the best and brightest will continue to escape from Newfoundland

  • manager
    March 01, 2014 - 20:29

    I think a lot of people are missing the point. I am a manager and I do request doctors notes but not from every employee. John never calls in sick and then he does well he is sick…Sue on the other hand has the weekend flu 2 times a month, I request a note after the 5th time she calls in. Then she doesn't bring it in I write Sue up, or Sue has a doctors note every time then I get Sue to get a note from the doctor stating she can work no problem no restrictions. Sue continues to call in sick Sue no longer works for me. Sorry Sue. John on the other hand doesn't abuse it so his once in every 6 months is not questioned.

    • Murse
      March 08, 2014 - 13:56

      Manager, Looking for trends in absenteeism can be useful in identifying offenders, but why require a note? Its probably because you want "leverage" when disciplining an employee. Let me explain the true cost of this practice. Many family doctors take weeks to get in to see, not to mention the employee may have no family doctor at all. This forces many people to populate local ER's looking for "Notes" ( I know. I work in one) Let me talk to you in terms a manager will understand; cost. The cost on our healthcare system! When a person is triaged and registered: $75 , to just see the doctor: $600, chest x-ray: 80$, basic blood work: 55$. Not to mention, the additional stress this puts on already strapped ER's. So your note is pretty pricey when you break it down like that. And as far as the note saying your employee is fit to work, I suppose that works on the day your Doctor saw the employee; but a person's health changes day by day, week by week, etc... Your practice is pretty risky and could become a human rights issue. When I was a manager, and noted trends in absenteeism, I spoke with the employee to work toward goals in improving their attendance; most were blown away to see how much time they were taking and that was often enough. If it continued to be a problem, clear consequences were laid out and implemented. Most times the employee thanked me for bringing it to their attention and all without a single note. But hey, notes are easy - right?

  • Ed Power
    March 01, 2014 - 17:52

    An excellent column, Mr. Wangersky, one that will be clipped from my copy of The Telegram for future reference. If an employer has a problem with an employee abusing sick day privileges, then they should deal with that situation by using administrative tools at their disposal. At my workplace we had one employee (of forty) who was "sick" thirty to forty days per year - mostly on Mondays and Fridays. The management response was not to conduct an investigation into the situation with this employee, use the disciplinary procedures in the Collective Agreement or offer the services of the Employee Assistance Program, but rather to demand that all employees give forty-eight hours notice prior to taking a sick day or produce a doctor's note if they did. A collective punishment for an individual problem. Needless to say, this "solution" was not accepted by either the employees or the HR department. Managers get paid to manage. Using the health care system to police the workplace is an abdication of their management responsibilities.

    • gord
      March 02, 2014 - 23:41

      Good points Ed, you also need managers that will help supervisors when dealing with this situation rather than point options to try. This is being abused everywhere by only a few and management doesn't seem to want to deal with it. Co workers get frustrated while they carry the load but won't openly complain for fear from the intimidation squad.

  • mainlander
    March 01, 2014 - 17:51

    How about charge $25 for each sick note - paid by the employer. If they want to waste a doctor's time, it should be on their dime.

    • Alicia
      March 01, 2014 - 19:36

      They already charge ($10 I think), sadly they charge the employee though, not the employer

  • EDfromRED
    March 01, 2014 - 14:54

    Employees should be given more slack. Politician's work less and less, with the House of Assembly being closed more than open. And when crisis' occur like DarkNL , we find our leaders in Florida more often than not. If our leaders are lazy, and out of touch, it's the height of hypocrisy to demand more out of the general populace.

    • Happily Retired
      March 01, 2014 - 18:16

      Ed, Yes,b'y, it's Kathy Dunderale's fault. Get a life. Everything is not a partisan political issue, and if you think the House of Assembly is a place where any worthwhile work was ever done, you have to be dreaming.

  • KJ
    March 01, 2014 - 14:05

    University business schools have a lot to answer for, and have escaped criticism in the analyses I have read of our post-2018 troubles. I bet the local employers' group is full of MBAs.

  • What's Really Going On
    March 01, 2014 - 12:10

    Certain employees in certain areas accumulate a specific number of sick days per year. Rather than view this as a privilege, there to be used when actually sick, these employees consider it an entitlement. If it is there it will be used. The problem is not the people who are legitimately sick - it is the people who look for any opportunity to take a sick day OR take sick days inappropriately because of child care issues, family issues etc and all their other leave is used up. Traditionally physicians have written notes for anything and everything totally based on the employees perspective and often times totally illegitimate. It is about time the reins are pulled in a bit. There needs to be better control and physicians share that responsibility.

  • Cashin Delaney
    March 01, 2014 - 10:36

    In almost anarchy, you do not get paid for work, you get paid on production, and not paid for not going to work, and assuredly no pay for producing nothing. In the age of RAGING LIBERAL EQUALITY, this sounds like the universal cure-all to our social ills. {How many of you, coasting by on others backs, cringe at this concept, and now love democracy all the more reverently?} In almost anarchy, you keep almost all of your earnings to shield you in sickness & misfortune, as not to burden the very, very, very limited state. The little bit of taxes you pay is a lot less than the money you choose to pay for private public service providers in mutual association, again pleasing federal and recent (since the money was spent!) provincial RAGING CONSERVATIVE EQUALITY. Then again, I get the impression that PROGRESSIVE democracy fanatics would rather play survival of the fittest, than persistence of a self-determined vital society? What we have to realize is that 'anarchy' (you could just call it freedom, if freedom didn't now mean Blue jeans and French fries) is a subsystem, or base-code of all we do, it reduces simply to might (which is not always bicep size, but includes social license, mores, etc) and contract. Similar to libertarianism, sadly, modern ideas about anarchy often evoke images of a masked, Mohawk-sporting neo-Nazi with a machine gun for an arm, stealing gas and food on the highway from 3 poor commuting fruit-pickers on a moped. Look at the Ukraine/Egypt. Russell is correct in saying the system is sick. It is sick from government intervention. Globally. Employees and employers are jaded, and will be scapegoated for leveraging oft-promised ‘equality’ to avoid work that the government has taken all the enjoyment/reward out of in regulation/legislation and taxes. Bill 29 is not preventing The Telegram from investigating the size of our under-the-table economy? If any of you believe I suffered guilt when any occasional "under the table" earning (UNTAXED) fed my pregnant wife, or child? Do any of you resent this? Mind your business, not mine, and don't ever get sick, is my only advice. You won't like being the scapegoat of CRA any more than I did. It is survival of the fittest, not a vital society. What ARE we fit for though, but more government intervention, unless we change via reduction, not inflation, of government? Maybe our esteemed editor can dust off his philosophy hat and speak to anarchy properly, as he seems to understand the sickness of democracy much better than I? Two-hundred years ago, I would be a Liberal by definition. Not today. Maybe I can learn to love democracy when society is fit for it. I enjoyed voting for Maple Moose, alas, he was not in office for long. It feels good to vote, and win – even if you know nothing changes. No one is immune to that rush!

  • Skeptical Cynic
    March 01, 2014 - 09:31

    This is exactly right. If employers insist on treating their employees like little school children, let the employers foot the bill for policing sick leave, not the taxpayer. Let the doctors focus on treating the sick.

  • Dee
    March 01, 2014 - 09:16

    First of all if you have he same employee of every month and who don't have any real medical issues yes then I can see having to produce a doctors letter.Eastern health has a very high rate of sick time,try working there if you are not sick you hav bad nerves,these kids haven't seen bulling like at the health care not only from management but from co-workers the ones that work Sid by side from you everyday being laughed at teased taunted,why because they have an audience.Also who would want to have a meal at a restaurant or a coffee when your server is sneezing,wiping their nose in their sleep.So yes management they are better home on their sofa watching soaps!

    • BAYMAN
      March 02, 2014 - 17:17

      Eastern Health has " a very high rate of sick time". Do you wonder, most people you talk to, including Medical Staff cannot wait to retire and get out of Eastern Hell. The problem there starts at the top. Sympathetic leadership and organisation would cut sick time down.

  • Joe
    March 01, 2014 - 08:54

    You mention "current business model". I think a significant part of the problem is the sell-out of the universities to their partners. Universities have climbed into bed with the business community and pulled up the bedspread. Instead of doing independent work they have twinned themselves with business. This has giving business, for their part, the impression that they can tell government how they should be run because they have the backing of universities.

  • Melita
    March 01, 2014 - 08:22

    Agreed, the doctor's note business is a ridiculous farce. But as for abuse of sick time in the workplace, it depends on the workplace and the level of professionalism of the people working there. I've been in workplaces where abuse of sick time was indeed rampant - only because of the employees' sense of entitlement - nothing more, nothing less.

  • Chantal
    March 01, 2014 - 08:02

    So. if you find yourself waiting for days to get an appointment, much of is has to do with employers abusing the health system. But the simple-minded will still find some way to blame the labour movement.

  • Pierre Neary
    March 01, 2014 - 07:34

    The Employers Council has it all wrong. How is encouraging an employee with an infectious illness to go to work productive? Not to mention the fact it has to be a burden on our healthcare system. The Ontario Medical Association is taking the right approach. It is encouraging business to drop the sick note requirement altogether. The right wing Employers Council would like nothing better than to return to the indentured serf days.