Working while sick? Why some employees take fewer sick days when working from home

With more than 10,000 new cases every day in the latest wave of coronavirus in Singapore, more people are falling ill and the Ministry of Manpower has warned that staff absences could increase.

But with working from home becoming more commonplace, many are forced to continue working or choose to work instead of taking time off.

Mr. Aman Ullah, 57, for example, decided to complete the tasks he deemed urgent while recovering from COVID-19 last September.

His symptoms were mild, he said, and although the director of Narada Asia Pacific said there was no pressure from his company, he decided to start work after two days of rest.

“My nature of work is that I work on international tenders and local tenders… And (for) some tenders there are deadlines. I feel responsible…if the tender ends next week, I have to work on it even though I’m normally sick,” he said.


Data from surveys carried out by Engagerocket last year showed that a majority of workers (68%) had not taken any leave in the last 12 months, whether it was annual leave, sick leave or other types of leave.

That’s “contrary to what you would expect in a pandemic,” the HR tech firm said.

The surveys covered more than 7,500 respondents at companies across multiple industry segments in Singapore from mid-April to mid-May last year.

They also showed that around 59% of people who continued to work while ill were “not opposed” to working while feeling unwell.

Mr Leong CheeTung, co-founder of EngageRocket, said people may have less incentive to take sick leave now.

“I think people feel, especially now that there’s actually no risk of infection if you work (from home), they feel less… socially responsible than they otherwise would. (to stay home when sick),” he said.

He added that workers generally try to avoid being the “bottleneck” of a project or work process, and will therefore try to “fit in” even if they don’t feel good.

“I guess in the minds of most of these workers, there are no physical barriers to getting the job done. They think, ‘I could still help unless I’m completely wiped out,’” he added.


But Mr Leong said he encourages workers to rest if they are sick, as he believes it is better for their mental well-being.

“(Working while sick) puts a mental burden on people that builds up over time…Unless you are fully aware of it, it can easily erupt at a very inopportune time, which will then create costs additional downstream,” he said.

Some possibilities are that the employee is having a nervous breakdown, sabotaging the business, or venting their frustration on other people.

Along with whether or not the company offers statutory time off, workers also need to feel “psychologically safe” to take time off, said Ms. Antoinette Patterson, co-founder and CEO of health tech start-up Safe Space. mental.

“I think what a lot of employers, HR people can do better is be really, really open in their communication…and encourage from a top-down level that their staff can go on leave, and encouraged them to use whatever advantages they have,” she said.

While difficult to measure, presenteeism has negative effects associated with it, as workers just “show up,” she said.

“Had they taken that sick day, they would have been fully rested and could be more productive the next time they came back to work,” Ms Patterson said.

Both Ms Patterson and Mr Leong said that trust and communication within the company is key to ensuring workers feel safe to have a candid conversation if they need a break.

Mr Leong said that while companies can set policies, it is often up to the individual team and team members to decide whether sick workers want to continue or prefer to rest.

“It’s entirely at the discretion of the manager… I think it’s more important that it’s normal to have this conversation within the team, than for the individual to be afraid of what the boss is going to say (when he wants to call in sick).”

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