The purpose of a sick day is simple. When an employee isn’t well, he or she should stay home. Not only does this eliminate the risk of infecting other people in the office, but it’s also what they need to do to recover to be productive and healthy employees.
But our “always-on” culture has made the sick day pretty much non-existent. Rather than sleeping and recuperating, employees are tethered to their digital devices and pulling a full workday. Sure, they might be doing so from their place of rest. But being online does not equal being at rest, and companies are suffering as a result.
Working while sick hampers productivity
Working professionals took an average of two and a half sick days in 2018, according to LinkedIn. Yes, it’s a disturbingly low number, but there’s a straightforward explanation. Newly popular (and often nebulous) work-from-home policies have reduced the need for company-allocated sick days and in turn, have encouraged employees to remain online and available at all times. As a result, employees may not feel that they are “sick enough” to use sick days. So despite feeling unwell, dedicated employees power through the discomfort and continue working.
When employees work while under the weather, they harm more than just their health. Nursing colds, the flu, migraines, and other illnesses is a job in itself, so any additional work–even answering emails or dialing into conference calls–means that employees are multitasking. Low engagement levels per task limit the quality of employee outputs and their efficiency, which means mistakes happen and productivity suffers. Multitasking also means employees aren’t taking the rest necessary to recover, making illnesses worse.
That said, putting one’s health before one’s career is easier said than done, and employees may fear repercussions for taking a day off. That’s why it’s up to leadership to heal a broken workplace culture where people look down on sick days. You must shift your internal processes and create a culture where employees feel comfortable taking actual sick days.
Setting the standard
Employers lead by example, and this applies to time off as much as it does to job performance. As a leader and manager, you need to log off and disconnect when you’re sick because this sends a message to employees that they too, can rest and recover when they’re sick. For this to work, you have to be disciplined about being disconnected. That means no emails, and no conference calls.
Make sure to keep lines of communication open
You may see the value in leading by example, but chances are you don’t know where your employees’ biggest concerns lie. To be an effective leader, you need to be aware of the stigmas surrounding time off and personal wellness at your organization. Visibility into employee thoughts and opinions on these topics requires constant, meaningful communication.
One of the best ways to encourage an open line of communication is through personal and professional face-to-face check-ins. These in-person meetings show employees that you value what they have to say and that you’re taking the time to understand their needs. At larger companies, one-on-ones with everyone can be challenging and time-consuming–but as a leader, you can still find a way to listen. A great way to gauge employee sentiment is through company-wide surveys. With the feedback that follows, you can get useful insights directly from your employees and can make changes at an organizational level.
Understanding employee happiness–at a macro and micro level–allows leaders to gauge when workers are disengaged and also get a pulse on the overall mood at the organization. Sometimes, an employee might not realize that they need to take time off, and it’s on you to stop in and scale back their workloads or encourage them to take a mental health day.
Make sure that you’re rewarding positive behavior
To change your company’s wellness culture, it’s also important to measure your progress and reward positive behaviors. A study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that 66% of employers who offer and measure their employees’ health and wellness efforts (like gym memberships, healthy eating, vacation days, and routine checkups) reported increased productivity.
Tracking how much time off employees take–whether as sick days or vacation–can give you meaningful insights and alert you to situations when an employee’s scheduled time off is unusually low. These insights then allow you to encourage that employee to take a day off and tells you to assure them that their wellness can and should be a priority.
Beyond tracking, rewarding positive behaviors that support personal wellness is a powerful tool to help and recognize employees. By rewarding employees for participating in activities tied to wellness, you show employees that you also care about their personal health and wellness, not just their contributions to the organization.
Employees who take care of themselves–and are encouraged to do so by their leaders–are those that are the most productive and engaged. Tracking, communicating with, and rewarding employees isn’t always straightforward. But by shifting your internal processes to support the whole employee, you can rest assured that they’re taking care of themselves and performing at their best. Then, once there are routines in place to encourage wellness and communication, the sick day can finally stage a healthy comeback.
Paul Pellman is the CEO of Kazoo.