It turns out you’re not the only one who hates having to go to the doctor to get a medical note for a sick day — chances are your doctor is sick of it, too.
A note from a Canadian doctor in Nova Scotia went viral this week when the doctor asked their patient’s employer to “consider revisiting your current absenteeism policy and remove the requirement for your employees to obtain a medical note for missed time from work”.
The doc points out that in most cases, a doctor’s office or an emergency room is a terrible place to recover — rather, “the best remedy for a patient with an isolated illness (i.e. gastrointestinal virus or common cold) is to stay home, rest and drink fluids”.
It’s not just those wacky Canucks who are sick of writing notes, either. In Australia, an employer is legally entitled to ask an employee for a sick note for any day they have off — but Australian Medical Association (AMA) Queensland President Dr Shaun Rudd wishes they wouldn’t.
“I think it’s a crazy thing to do, to have to produce a medical certificate,” says Dr Rudd. “I think it’s just sheer madness. It shows a complete lack of trust between the employer and the employee. My simple view is that if you don’t trust your employees, and you show that by asking for a medical certificate, then why should your employees trust you? If the employee says he was sick, then he was sick.”
Dr Rudd agrees with the anonymous Canadian doctor’s assertion that in most cases, a sick employee is better off resting at home than taking up space in a doctor’s office.
“They’re absolutely, 100 per cent better off resting at home,” he stresses. “No question about that. If they have something more serious, and they actually do need to be seen by a doctor, that’s another thing. They may need a prolonged period of time off work, and I think it’s very reasonable that they would give a certificate to their employer in that case to give them some idea of how long they won’t be able to work. That makes good sense.
“But if we’re talking about a few days for the flu or gastro, that’s just ridiculous. The last place they need to be is in a doctor’s surgery.”
But Nick McPhee from the Queensland Chamber of Commerce says doctors should spare a thought for small businesses who can’t afford to have employees taking advantage of their sick leave entitlements.
“You’re talking about mum-and-dad shops who may have had the business for 30 or 40 years, and they’ve only got a staff of four or five,” he says. “If you have one employee who’s always trying to cheat the system, or take advantage of it, that puts undue added pressure onto businesses that already have more than enough on their plate to worry about.”
McPhee says that in practice, most employers won’t always ask for a sick note — but it’s important that they have the option.
“Generally, employees are pretty open to allowing employees to take days off without providing medical certificates,” he says. “It only becomes a situation when you find an employee has been taking numerous days off, or if an employer wants to set out a blanket approach, if you will. So employers don’t have to request a sick note, but legislation most definitely allows them to do so.
“I suppose the biggest thing is ensuring that sick leave isn’t taken advantage of, and that they’re not taking sickies every Monday or Friday. The Chamber of Commerce preaches the importance of work and life balance, and some days, employees just need a mental health day. I can appreciate that.
“But if you have a lot of people skipping out on Mondays and Fridays, I think it’s suitable to ask for a note. What other businesses will do is if an employee misses two or more consecutive days, there’s a requirement to provide a note. It’s always going to come down to the type and size of the business and the employees.”
Rather than providing any sort of ‘proof’ that an employee is sick, however, Dr Rudd says most doctors will give a sick note to any patient who asks for one.
“I would say it’d be very unusual for a doctor not to write a sick note,” he says. “There’s a relationship of trust between the doctor and the patient, and you have to respect that. If the patient tells you they were sick yesterday, then they were sick yesterday. It’s as simple as that… if the employee comes in to me and says, ‘I wasn’t able to work yesterday because I was sick, can you give me a certificate?’, then I’m not going to say no. It’s just crazy. It’s absolute nonsense.”
Even if they are easy to get hold of, McPhee believes a requirement to produce a medical certificate is a powerful deterrent for an employee thinking of chucking a sickie.
“If an employee is required to provide a medical certificate, they might think twice about calling in sick on Monday,” McPhee says. “Maybe they just wanted a few hours of extra sleep, or maybe they wanted to take the Friday off to start the weekend early… it might sound strange, but having to go to a doctor and lie your way through it can be a deterrent sometimes.”
When I put this to Dr Rudd, he just laughs.
“People come up with all sorts of reasons to justify it, but at the end of the day, you just have to trust your employee to do the right thing,” he says. “If they’re sick, they won’t go to work, and when they’re better, they’ll come back to work. If you don’t trust your employee, and you feel like they’re doing the wrong thing, then you’ve got a problem there. That’s not a good way to run a business.
“If it’s just a short, self-limiting illness, which most things are, then you’re talking about someone missing a day. If you need a note for that, that’s completely ridiculous.”
What do you think? Should your employer be able to ask for a note from a doctor if you miss a day, or should the legislation be changed? Have your say in the comments below!