Some days, you wake up feeling horrid. There’s a scratchy feeling in your throat and you have a throbbing headache. A quick glance at your calendar shows it to be a rare day of minimal meetings and no pressing engagements.
Faced with the choice of a one-hour train ride to work or a five-minute walk to the GP, you opt for the latter.
As you drink hot Milo in bed later, you feel a slight twinge in the place where your heart used to be. That’s called guilt.
Petty moral dilemmas like “to MC or not to MC” are rarely front page news. After all, what harm can it do? As it turns out, the decision is not so easy if you’re working for an organisation that takes a dim view of staff who go on medical leave too often, or, conversely, maintains a reward system for those who do not take medical leave.
Just recently, Singapore Airlines’ staff appraisal policy in relation to medical leave came into the spotlight with the unfortunate demise of one of its stewardesses, who was said to have been ill a couple of days before.
This piece is not about the HR policy of the national carrier with regards to medical leave, but the basis for sick leave practices which is a topic that warrants discussion.
There might be some logic for tying a staff member’s prospects of promotion with the number of medical leave days taken. Malingering is a real problem for employers everywhere. Thus, the debate over MCs is “a human resource issue, not a medical one”, said a doctor in private practice, who asked not to be named. “Doctors have very little means of proving that a patient does not have a headache, a backache, or any number of conditions a patient may claim to have during a consultation.”
As anyone who has undergone National Service can tell you, there is always an unexplained outbreak of diarrhoea and back pain just before weekend guard duty.
But what about those who are genuinely ill, or in pain? The pain and suffering we feel is unique to every individual. I may be okay with soldiering on despite a bad cold but my colleague may find the same fever – possibly from a similar strain of virus – utterly unbearable. A consultation with your G.P. is even more inadequate for dealing with invisible ailments like depression or insomnia.
Can a balance be struck between empathy and productivity? There is no clear-cut resolution to this moral dilemma because all the checkboxes in the world cannot ascertain what different individuals are really feeling on any given day.
A system that rewards a staff member for not taking medical leave also effectively punishes another for doing so when he or she genuinely requires one.
When supposedly objective standards are inadequate, the only measure employers and employees can rely on is our empathy and common sense. Managers need to manage more than just workflow; they need to know the needs and sensitivities of the people they work with and negotiate based on mutual understanding. For employees, they need to recognise how taking an MC would affect the company and their colleagues. it’s not just the bottom line that suffers: Colleagues have to pick up the slack and make sacrifices, perhaps at the expense of their time, plans and even health.
The kind approach might look something like this: If you are truly unwell, stay at home. Especially if your illness is contagious. However, if you are just feeling off-colour in the morning and feel like you may not be able to produce your best work at the office, consider if your colleagues might feel as lousy as you do or worse before you decide to go with the five-minute trot to the doctor.
As an employer or manager, being empathetic and caring could mean checking on an employee who appears to be taking more medical leave than everyone else to see if there might be a genuine medical condition that requires specialist treatment. It could also mean talking to the employee to see if there could be a problem at work that may be well within the manager’s powers to rectify, like a problem with colleagues, or matters pertaining to job targets and job satisfaction.
If, after talking with the employee and it turns out to be a case of malingering or a lack of discipline, then appropriate action should be taken by the management as that would be the kind thing to do, especially for the rest of the crew.
In Singapore, many of our problems occur when we resort to bureaucracy as a substitute for empathy. This is understandable – black-and-white answers are easy, whereas people are always different and can be difficult.
But oftentimes, the easy answer is not always the correct one. What looks good on paper may lead to unhappiness and tragedy in real life.
So the best way to tackle this may be with the heart – on both the parts of the employer and employee.