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7 February 2022

How Covid killed the sick day – and why we should bring it back

Working from home encourages people to keep going while mildly ill, even if they won't be as productive.

By Emma Haslett

Today is semi-officially National Sickie Day, the Monday which — thanks to the weather, winter illnesses, limited daylight and the long wait for spring — people are statistically more likely to take off than any other. Celebrate it while you still can: the pandemic has brought sick days to the brink of extinction.

Fewer people than ever are likely to be calling in sick. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), despite a potentially fatal disease virtually shutting down the economy, in 2020 the UK’s sickness absence rate fell to 1.8 per cent, its lowest level since records began in 1995. With Covid-19 accounting for 14 per cent of those absences, the number of people taking sick days to recover from colds, flu and other minor illnesses has fallen dramatically.

This is largely due to the pandemic. Social distancing and stricter public hygiene measures have led to lower incidences of colds and flu, but these measures have also blurred the lines between the home and the office, and the hours employees are expected to be available. Working from home makes employees less visible and their productivity less obvious, encouraging a new kind of presenteeism: the tendency now is to work at home while ill and take the occasional nap between meetings.

Even Covid itself is becoming an increasingly weak excuse for taking time off, as Omicron and its generally milder symptoms have changed employers’ expectations.

Gabriella Griffith, a freelance journalist, tested positive last Monday. She immediately collected her two-year-old from nursery, then returned to her desk to work out what could be put off until the next week and what “absolutely” had to be done. Griffith says her clients expected her to keep working. “The expectation is that you will keep doing things, because everyone’s had it, so people kind of have to work through it.”

But Omicron can be deceptive, she says. “The thing I have found with Covid is that most of the time I’m not so sick that I can’t work, so I don’t take time off, but then I get caught out by it. You find yourself suddenly out of breath or dizzy because you’re doing too much.

“Because we now all work from home, there’s no calling in sick and saying, ‘I can’t work today.’ The expectation is that even if you’re feeling ill and it’s a day where you wouldn’t have gone to the office, you can still sit in your bed and do work.”

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During video calls she had to mute herself when she wasn’t talking in case she had a coughing fit. “It’s just awkward. You obviously don’t look great, and you feel horrible.”

However, Griffith does at least have a way of earning money while isolating. Analysis published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) just before Christmas suggested that over the festive period, 650,000 workers who were self-isolating were probably to do so without any sick pay. And those who do receive sick pay aren’t exactly raking it in: according to the TUC, at £96.35 per week the UK’s is the least generous statutory sick pay in Europe. 

For employers, the end of the sick day might seem positive. Sophie, a producer at a TV production company, was in the early stages of pregnancy during the first lockdown when she came down with severe morning sickness. Working from home meant she was always close to a bathroom, which meant she was able to keep working, even when the sickness was at its worst. “There were between ten and 20 occasions that I would not physically have been able to have gone into the office that I was able to work because I didn’t have to go on the Tube,” she says. 

“There were times, unbeknownst to my employer, that I did have to have a nap during work days, and I set myself an alarm to check my emails. But I probably was more productive [than I would have been] because I didn’t have to keep taking days off.” 

Working from home also gave her more control over what her employer knew. “It meant I didn’t have to tell my company straight away. If I’d been in the office, everyone would have guessed that I was pregnant, before I was ready to tell them.”

Companies once discouraged people from working while sick because they risked infecting their colleagues. Now that risk can be avoided, and the unspoken assumption that employees can continue to work while mildly ill is clearly having an effect. In the long term, however, businesses may regret this change: sickness presenteeism is associated with lower levels of productivity.

The sickie has long endured a poor reputation; few managers feel they’re getting the best from their colleagues if they ask them to make some soup and watch telly all afternoon. The trouble is that, in some cases, that really is the most effective thing they can do.

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