Doctors should not have to police the workplace

Russell Wangersky
Published on March 1, 2014

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: