Obviously, first and foremost, those who are sick need to stay home to recover. This needs to be crystal clear. In this case, the medical certificate offers clarity and verifiability. But the absenteeism approach in many companies revolves primarily around that medical certificate. The result? Absenteeism is – wrongly – assigned a fully medical label.

Medicalisation of absenteeism: negative side effects

1. Working relationship on pause

The treating physician has put one of your employees on sick leave for a specific period of time. The employee is following their doctor’s advice and who are you to challenge this? In other words, once that doctor’s note has been received, you are no more than an outsider in the situation.

The working relationship is put on hold during the period of the employee’s incapacity for work. This often also results in a stop to the dialogue with the employee, which is not a good thing. They run the risk of losing contact with the company and the team as a result.

2. Trigger for long-term absenteeism

A medical certificate actually rules out any discussion on the duration of the absenteeism. After all, the treating physician has already determined a time period. So, the employee waits out the period at home, even when it may very well be possible to return to work or at least carry out certain tasks.

Consequently, it is not surprising that employees tend to stay home longer in companies that inevitably demand a medical certificate than in those that do not. This is the result of a study conducted by HR service provider SD Worx.

3. Cover for other issues

A medical certificate can serve as an escape route when non-medical problems are affecting the employee, from a problematic home situation and dissatisfaction with the tasks assigned to a tense relationship with management or a conflict in the workplace.

By staying away from work and hiding behind a doctor’s note, the employee does not have to address the real problems with their manager or HR. Shame may also play a role or the employee may not feel at ease enough to address the issue.

4. Lack of nuance

The medical certificate puts a label on the employee: they is suddenly 100% sick, while someone without a medical certificate is 100% fit for work. The reality behind the absenteeism is, of course, more nuanced than that.

From doctor’s note to employability letter

The question that then arises is whether the mandatory medical certificate needs to be reconsidered. There is no one clear answer to this, as it depends on the organisational culture and even the individual employee. What is certain, however, is that the medical certificate should no longer play a leading role in dealing with absenteeism. But what role should it play?

First and foremost, keep the communication channel with your sick employee open at all times, from the moment the employee is reported sick. This approach not only raises the absenteeism threshold, but also makes it easier to address any underlying issues. Apart from HR, your managers play a prominent role during absenteeism meetings.

In addition, do not focus solely on 100% sick or healthy, but on the employability of your employee on sick leave in order to keep them involved with the team and organisation. Which tasks can they possibly take on? How can the team members and manager support them in this? When is what kind of effort feasible?

Finally, has Covid-19 brought about a major breakthrough?

Many organisations have taken tremendous steps this past year in terms of remote working, organising, managing, and monitoring. Forced by the circumstances, a new approach to teamwork has been introduced at breakneck speed that is based on trust, dialogue, and connection.

The fixation of many employers on the physical presence of their employees has made way for a focus on employability and results. And that in turn has had a positive effect on absenteeism.

In fact, 41% of employees did not have a single day of sick leave in 2020, according to the 2020 absenteeism report from SD Worx. This amount was 37% in 2019. White-collar workers in particular had far fewer short-term sick leave periods. According to the report, working from home plays a positive role in this.