Ontario civil servants taking fewer sick days during COVID-19

Ontario Public Service (OPS) workers took fewer sick days in the first several months of COVID-19 pandemic than they did over the same time in previous years.

On average, the roughly 60,000 civil servants working in the province’s ministries, agencies and Crown corporations took one fewer sick day between March and July than they did in 2017, 2018, and 2019, according to Ontario’s Treasury Board. 

That drop is partially because fewer public servants were getting sick with seasonal colds or the flu since they were working remotely, and if they were sick they were more likely to work through it at home, according to human resources expert Nita Chhinzer. 

‘Control over when we work’

The University of Guelph professor says some studies show that people are more productive working remotely than they are in the office. 

“We have control over when we work, and how we work, and that control means that we are essentially overworking ourselves,” said Chhinzer.

“That’s probably why we see people continuing to work when they’re sick.” 

In the last few years, the province’s public-service workers took an average of four to four-and-a-half sick days between March and July, but during the pandemic that number dropped to three days. 

Another factor, Chhinzer says, is that most employees aren’t taking sick days the same way they normally would.

“People were abusing sick days in the past to do things such as go to picnics, extend holidays and take days off when they just needed a bit of a breather,” Chhinzer told CBC News.

“Now there’s nothing to do. So why take that fake sick day?”

The president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) thinks that closed schools also played a part in his members taking fewer days off in the spring. 

“I raised five boys and quite often they’d come home and you’d get sick because they brought something home from school,” said Warren “Smokey” Thomas. “So that wasn’t happening.”

Thomas adds that few of his members actually got COVID-19, so there wouldn’t have been many sick days taken as a result of the novel coronavirus. 

‘Survivor syndrome’ for those still working during COVID-19

Chhinzer says there are also other hidden pressures that keep employees from taking sick days while working from home. Especially in industries where people have been let go during the pandemic. 

Ontario lost more than a million jobs in the first few months of COVID-19.

“Where there’s been layoffs, the productivity of the survivors for a short term peaks,” Chhinzer told CBC News. “Those survivors are trying to deal with a higher volume of work and they’re feeling guilty that their colleagues have been let go — but they haven’t — so as a result they’re actually working more.”

Employment rates in the province have been on the rise again since June. Last month, the unemployment rate in Ontario dropped 0.7 percentage points to 10.6 per cent.

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