A niggling tickle in your throat has developed into something more sinister: you’ve caught that cold, flu or undiagnosed viral thing that has been making its way around your open-plan office.
You’ve got to call in sick. Or do you?
There’s so much to do and there is nothing stopping you from responding to all of those emails and calling into the daily conference in the comfort of your favourite, oversized T-shirt.
“I’m too sick to come in, but I can work from home,” you tell your boss and, with a quick confirmation, you bask in the glow of your ‘don’t-stop-won’t-stop’ productivity.
It is confirmation of the death of the sick day and of the Australian tradition of “taking a sickie”, often a euphemism for a paid day at the beach.
Modern technology has afforded flexibility in how and where you carry out your duties. We know it has transformed the notion of down-time, but it may have also killed the institution of the sick day.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data show more than 30 per cent of Australians work from home in some capacity – an increase from less than 20 per cent 15 years ago.
The freedom to work from home or a local café with espresso coffee and free WiFi is undoubtedly appealing and has allowed more parents to continue working while raising children.
But contrary to expectations, those with greater flexibility in their work schedule actually work more than those with less flexibility.
A University of Texas at Austin study found “telecommuters” were working five to seven more hours each week than those who work exclusively in an office.
Australian Catholic University professor Sugumar Mariappanadar has developed terms to define this workplace guilt and sense of responsibility and preparedness to compromise our own health and wellbeing.
Dr Mariappandar told The New Daily psychologists had built a theory of “mutual benefit”, a dynamic where organisations benefit more than individuals, often at the cost of employees’ time, health and family life.
When people work from home without supervision, Dr Mariappanadar explained workers didn’t know if they’d done enough and felt they should overcompensate for their work flexibility.
“You work longer hours because of the guilt you have and don’t know if you’ve done enough work,” he said.
The “sustainable human resource” management researcher said many workers were also choosing not to take their entitled time off to avoid increased workload when they returned to the office.
“The employer would argue you chose to do it, and place the blame on the individual,” Dr Mariappandar said.
Employment lawyer Trent Hancock, of McDonald Murholme, a leading employment law firm with offices in Melbourne and Adelaide, told The New Daily that workforce casualisation and the shift towards the “gig economy” was also contributing to fewer workers receiving sick leave entitlements.
“This is compounded by the fact that those workers who do have an entitlement to paid sick leave often feel a reluctance to take it out of fear they will be treated adversely for doing so,” Mr Hancock said.
The workplace lawyer agreed more employees were pressured into working from home in lieu of accessing their paid sick leave.
“The ease with which employers can contact employees while at home also means that employees are spending less time recovering and more time working,” Mr Hancock said.
While some workplaces have implemented “unlimited paid sick leave”, Mr Hancock said most employers treated employees adversely for taking sick days.
He said he had seen cases where employers had even pro-actively implemented covert strategies to reduce sick leave taken by employees who had taken more days off unwell.
“This can often send a signal throughout the workplace that taking sick days is not acceptable even when employees are genuinely unwell,” he said.
What are the Australian sick leave entitlements?
All permanent, full-time employees have a right under the National Employment Standards to take 10 days of paid personal leave each year or pro-rata for part-time employees. This entitlement also accrues year after year.
An employee can take paid personal leave if they are not fit for work because of a personal illness or personal injury, while certain notice and evidence requirements, such as a medical certificate, need to be complied with.
Although it is commonplace for employers to ask about an employee’s ailments out of genuine concern for their welfare, Mr Hancock said employees were not required to divulge the nature of their illness or symptoms as a barometer of whether they should work.
“This applies regardless as to whether the employee is working from the office or from home,” Mr Hancock said, while acknowledging employers could ask about the expected duration of absence.
When it comes to working from home while sick, one could remember George Orwell’s famous quote from 1984: “Freedom is slavery.”