I’m Sick, but I Work Remotely

Why sick leave policy when working remotely must be defined—just like every other policy

Andy Chan
Andy Chan
Mar 18, 2020 · 5 min read

The coronavirus outbreak has resulted in companies fueling a global movement towards remote working, which also led to the excitement of futurists who believe that working remotely is the future of work. We’re looking at huge companies that never allowed remote working as well as companies that rescinded their remote working policies jumping into distributed teams to prevent further spreading.

Undeniably, not every company is equipped to handle the intricacies of remote working, especially for those didn’t have prior experience. Unfortunately, there’s no chance for partial remote working—allowing companies to ease into the drastic change—as the coronavirus threatens the global population with its unprecedented infectivity.

Hence, it’s imperative that companies communicate in plain-speak during times of fear and worry. Relaying answers to pressing issues in a vague, corporate communication manner, doesn’t benefit anyone. Companies are already suffering huge losses during this global health crisis, such as airline companies facing imminent bankruptcy by the end of May, forcing them to seek government bailouts.

Thus, companies will have to ensure that even as every employee is now working at home (previously, at co-working spaces or cafés when the coronavirus wasn’t predicted to be severe), daily business operations can still go on smoothly—at least, most of them.

Simply slapping a stay-home notice and expecting everyone to come online and work as if they are in the office is simply unrealistic. It’s not just the way people will work, it’s also the leadership, the management style, and the details that companies often fail to iron out.

The last thing any company wants is for a worried employee to have his worries accelerated by a company that cannot communicate clearly enough.


Or it might not be a sneeze. It could be an ankle sprain. It could be a stomach flu. Either way, your employee is now at home, feeling ill and under the weather, and he’s hesitating about whether he should still come online on Slack for the 3 p.m. team meeting.

Productivity at the office and when working remotely are generally very different. For instance, if you’re sick and you have to come to work in an office, it’s best to call in sick and avoid spreading illnesses within a confined space. Injuries are legitimate reasons for an employee to not come to the office as well.

However, what if you’re already at home, and work is supposed to be done at home anywhere from your kitchen counter to your couch?

Sick leave policy is an intricacy that companies need to iron out as soon as possible. It’s not a zero-sum where if you’re suffering from a contagious disease or an ailment that hinders movement, you can be excused from coming to the office.

With a stay-home notice (or a home quarantine), these ailments are not brought anywhere else but other rooms in the house. This also means that if an employee has flu, he can still come online since he’s already at home.

It sounds logical, but looking at the big picture, the employee is still sick. Yet, it’s also illogical to simply excuse employees from coming online and using the laptop (which only requires the upper torso) when an injury is not directly affecting his/her work.

Rather than applying a blanket sick leave policy—worse, not even changing the physical sick leave policy, it’s better to consider equity for both the employee and the company.

We get plagued or attacked by diseases that can be categorized on an “annoyance scale”. For instance, a dry cough is irritating but a fever will bring the person down. Companies can determine what kind of disease will render a day off or more by drawing a connection between his job scope.

For instance, an injury like an ankle sprain mostly affects daily living. However, if work is mostly done at the same spot using the upper torso, an ankle sprain would not warrant a day off. If that injury was on the hand (e.g. carpal tunnel syndrome), the disruption will be severe.

For most illnesses, it’s likely that the employee will consume over-the-counter or prescripted medicine. Headaches, flu, dry cough, and sore throat are illnesses that can affect a person’s work performance—especially when they are drowsy from medication.

There is no way anyone can expect a drowsy employee to work at his best.

Throw out the generic sick leave policy. Although companies can opt to grant day-offs even if the employee’s job isn’t disrupted, continuing the business is important too. The key is to evaluate an employee’s condition fairly, while ensuring that the business can still operating.

Clinics and hospitals are warzones for the coronavirus. It’s also much better for an employee to commit to social distancing and stay at home longer. While medical certificates (MCs) are the norm to prove that the employee is sick, it’s a policy that puts the employee at risk.

Companies need to standardize their approach across all teams–it’s absurd to have a department implement different initiatives and policies while a department has yet to informed others of it. If the remote working sick leave policy has been amended, every department should be practising the same thing.

Employees can easily abuse many policies when they are working remotely. For example, if they are late for work, they can stay online during “core hours” and go to sleep. They can also call in sick even when they’re not.

Although it’s good to be flexible with the sick leave policy, it may not be fair for the business when there’s abuse.

However, that doesn’t meant the company should closely monitor to the point of micro-management (i.e. defeating the point of being flexible).

The best way to get around this problem is to have trust: not every employee will be like this. If anything, work performance can be a good indicator of whether an employee is abusing the sick leave policy. In times of crisis, having a sliver of human care can be especially heartwarming.

The Human Business

We’re all about the humans in the business.

Andy Chan

Written by

Andy Chan

UI/UX at The Iterative | Founder of Singapore’s first collegiate UI/UX student organisation | CS @ UOL

The Human Business

A leadership publication that focuses on human-first management philosophies.

Andy Chan

Written by

Andy Chan

UI/UX at The Iterative | Founder of Singapore’s first collegiate UI/UX student organisation | CS @ UOL

The Human Business

A leadership publication that focuses on human-first management philosophies.

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