Politician weighs in on contentious sick-note issue

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It’s a contentious topic that divides HR professionals across the country but could one politician’s proposal settle the issue of employee sick notes once and for all? Well, in Manitoba at least.

NDP backbencher Dave Gaudreau has put forward a law that would forbid bosses in the province from requesting sick notes until an employee had missed at least seven days in a calendar year.

“It would definitely save taxpayers (money) and free up a lot of doctors' time,'' Gaudreau said Tuesday. “The savings to the system, to Manitoba taxpayers, is in the millions of dollars,” he added.

Currently, the province has no law governing when employers can demand a doctor’s note but medical groups across Canada have been increasingly criticizing the practice over the past few years.

In an official statement, the Ontario Medical Association said the practice of requiring sick notes “has a discouraging effect and forces patients into the doctor's office when they are sick, which only encourages the spread of germs to those in the waiting room.''
The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association also expressed concern that numerous employer requests were wasting too much of doctors’ time.

Last year, one employee’s extraordinary sick note went viral when it was shared online.
“Please reconsider your policy on this,” a clearly-frustrated MD begs the overly-diligent employer, “there are surely better ways of wasting your tax dollars.”

The note added that the patient "sensibly stayed home from work," rather than spread his cold to his colleagues and customers. 

"I have no test for the common cold and therefore believe him, however, you feel his time and mine should be wasted by making him sit in the walk-in clinic for hours and me spending time writing a sick-note that I could be spending on people who genuinely need my attention," added the doctor. 

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  • Tanya Sieliakus on 2016-02-25 8:54:37 AM

    Reprinted from Doctors' Nova Scotia:

    The issue of employers’ demanding sick notes - and sometimes after missing only a single day of work – is hotly debated and highly polarized. On the one hand, doctors comment that the practice is stressing an already overstressed system. On the other, employers say they need doctors to verify the reasons their employees give for their absences. This HR practitioner is not certain that either side are singly right.

    Employers are not doctors. After an employee has been out of the workplace because of a serious illness or injury a doctor’s note is required to determine if the employee is “fit” to return to work and/or to substantiate a physical or other accommodation. Unfortunately, employees sometimes do not understand or agree to the restrictions placed on them and a doctor’s written opinion is a necessary means to ensure that the employee will be safe on the job.

    Too often, unfortunately, a note is not a matter of health and safety rather employers request notes as means to drive behaviour; that is, to address the offending behaviour of employees who are chronically and without legitimate cause absent from the workplace. The practice of asking for notes in this instance must stop.

    When an employee has an “observable” illness or injury asking for a doctor’s note is akin to telling the employee you suspect they are lying. Employers need to place more trust in their employees and stop the unnecessary practice of asking for a doctor’s note to substantiate what should be clear to any reasonable person.

    Then there is the practice of employers asking for doctors’ notes to substantiate absences for “discretionary” (or invisible) illnesses or injuries. This HR practitioner believes that notes will always be required but if employers had a better-considered attendance management system the practice could be significantly curtailed.

    Attendance programs should manage absenteeism and minimize absences by approaching attendance in a concerned and positive manner, as a matter of operational excellence. Most attendance programs have progressive thresholds of discipline. I suggest that employers stop requesting doctor’s notes for discretionary illnesses or injuries until the employee reaches the point of possible termination. Further, employers should be trending attendance patterns. Instead of insisting “Bob” provide a doctor’s note because he has had 5 occurrences of absenteeism so far this year instead look at Bob’s attendance in comparison to his immediate peers and only if Bob’s attendance record is egregious compared to his peers should his employer ask for a note.

    Concomitantly, doctors need to understand that employers simply cannot take all employees at their word, especially when an employee’s attendance situation has become egregious. Doctors must remember that employers are held to obligations under the Human Rights Act, and that to avoid terminating an employee with chronic attendance issues who might have a disability, thereby creating significant human rights and legal issues, the employer must show due diligence and have the employee provide medical substantiation for their absences.

    Finally, doctors must hold their patients accountable. Too many doctors have the reputation of writing whatever note the patient wants; this practice must stop, just as employers’ practice of asking for unnecessary notes must stop.

    Tanya Sieliakus is co-owner of HR pros Inc., a niche HR and safety consulting firm serving the Maritimes. Tanya has her national CHRP designation and is a certified diversity trainer and safety auditor. Tanya sits, and has sat, on a wide array of boards including: Entrepreneurs with Disabilities, TEAM Works Cooperative, the Human Resources Association of Nova Scotia, the East Coast Music Association, Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, the Epilepsy Association of NS, and the Royal United Services Institute. Tanya can be reached at tanya@hr-pros.ca.

  • Sophia Fern on 2016-02-25 9:08:49 AM

    I disagree - If someone is sick for more than 3 days, they should be able to medically substantiate their absence to an employer. Seven days is too long and encourages abuse.

  • Jeannie McQuaid on 2016-02-25 10:36:06 AM

    We don't have a hard and fast sick note policy. Our employees, bless their hearts, if they are off and feel they need to go to the Dr. generally ask for a note just in case. If we do advise an employee that we'll need a Dr. note, it's generally after a longer absence or a surgery and it is to confirm they are fit to return, not to prove that they needed to be off. Let common sense prevail.

  • Mary on 2016-02-25 12:15:47 PM

    It can't ever be simplified down to a unilaterally-administrated number. Where is he getting his advice?

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