Time to dispense with mandatory sick notes
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An Alberta doctor, fed up with a growing demand from employers for sick notes, posted the following note on Reddit, and it went viral: “(First name) has had, by their own report, a cold today and sensibly stayed home from work rather than spreading this to his colleagues/customers. I have no test for the common cold and therefore believe him/her; however you feel his time and mine should be wasted by making him sit in the walk-in clinic for hours and me spend time writing a sick note that I could be spending on people who genuinely need my attention.”
The sentiment that excessive demand for sick notes is wasting the time and talents of medical professionals is widespread. It’s of particular concern in Manitoba, which has the lowest number of family doctors per-capita in Canada. Dr. Candace Bradshaw, president of Doctors Manitoba, recently suggested phasing out sick notes could lessen the workload on doctors.
Her proposal comes after the University of Manitoba did its part to ease the burden on the health-care system by saying students will no longer need a sick note for temporary absences. Beginning in the fall, U of M students who are absent because of illness will need only fill out a self-declaration form. The Rady Faculty of Health Sciences already has a similar policy.
The issue has history in this province. In 2016, Dave Gaudreau, an NDP backbencher in Manitoba, called for a provincial law to forbid “bosses from requesting sick notes until a worker has missed at least seven days in a calendar year.” That didn’t happen, but the issue continued to percolate in different circles, and seems to have come to a head during the pandemic.
Doctors across the country reported increased demand from patients who wanted to stay away from their workplace because they were wary of catching COVID-19 and bringing it home to their loved ones. Many workplace rules demanded a doctor’s note so, somehow, without benefit of a crystal ball, doctors were expected to confirm whether an absence from the work site was justified, even without adequate knowledge of factors such as the workplace conditions and how going back on the job might impact the patient’s physical and mental health.
There is an alternative: trust that most workers are not liars. Trust that if an employee says they’re too sick to work, they’re being truthful.
When an employer demands written proof from a doctor, the subtext is that the worker’s word is not good enough. Such suspicion can poison employee morale and encourage a workplace culture of mistrust.
The Canadian Medical Association has urged employers and institutions to do away with sick notes completely, but perhaps such an all-encompassing measure would be unfair to employers who, understandably, must be concerned about excessive absenteeism.
A reasonable compromise might be to fine-tune workplaces policies so they don’t apply to workers who take an occasional sick day, which is normal and understandable. The doctor-note mandate could be directed at those whose absences are frequent in number or length.
Many workplaces currently demand sick notes from all employees after a set period, such as three missed days of work. Perhaps it would be more fair to rewrite the workplace policy so employers “have the right” to seek a doctor’s note, in order to focus the process on workers who seem to be abusing sick-day policies.
Eliminating the majority of sick notes would let doctors spend more time attending to the medical needs of their patients, and less time filling out forms to meet the paperwork pronouncements of human-resource departments.