flu-shot

Nicole Stewart of the Conference Board of Canada recommends employers implement health and wellness clinics to keep down sick days as workers age. (Paul Abel/Associated Press)

Workers in Canada took an average of 9.3 sick days in 2011, with people in health care and social assistance taking the most days off, a report from the Conference Board of Canada shows.

Those absences cost the economy about $16.6 billion, based on salary cost for the days lost, it estimates. That figure does not include the cost of replacement workers.

Although both private- and public-sector employers are incurring significant costs from absenteeism, few of them keep track of sick days or why they happen, the research report released Monday shows. Only 46 per cent of employers admitted any kind of tracking.

The report says companies and organizations should do more to monitor absenteeism so they can address the causes, said Nicole Stewart, author of "Missing in Action: Absenteeism Trends in Canadian Organizations."

Aging workforce means more sick days

“Absenteeism is more than a human resources issue. Unless organizations start proactively addressing absenteeism, this trend will most likely accelerate as the workforce ages,” she added.

Older workers tend to experience more illness and suffer more from workplace fatigue, so they have a record of more sick days, she said. Workers aged 55 to 64 took an average of 13.2 days of sick leave, compared with 5.9 days for workers 20 to 24.

Some other trends in absenteeism:

  • Saskatchewan had the highest rate of 11 days, followed by New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec with 10.8 days each.
  • Alberta, with 7.9 days, and Ontario, with 8.1 days, had the lowest number of sick days.
  • Women (11.7 days) took more days off than men (7.7 days).
  • Public-sector workers (12.9 days) took off more time than private-sector workers (8.2 days).
  • Union members (13.2 days) were absent more often than non-unionized employees (7.5 days).

"It seems to me that unions have just been more effective over the past number of years in negotiating more collective leave into the agreement,” said Karla Thorpe, director of the leadership at the Conference Board, in an interview with CBC's Lang & O'Leary Exchange.

She pointed out that it is good for the workplace for employees with infectious diseases to take a sick day.

"It’s not beneficial to the employer to have them coming back to the workforce and infecting the other workers," Thorpe said. 

There is a perception that public-sector workers have a sense of entitlement around their sick days, Stewart said in her report, but she noted substantial differences in absenteeism among different public-sector departments and organizations.

Improve work environment to lower sick days

Research suggests that a more positive work environment lowers absentee rates, Stewart said.

“If those public-sector organizations struggling with absenteeism could find a way to improve their work environment, it could help curb their absenteeism,” she added.

In examining high absenteeism in the health-care and social services sector, she points to high-stress jobs like nursing, where personnel are exposed to illness at work. A high percentage of nurses also report physical assaults and emotional abuse from patients. In the health-care sector, workers report a lack of staff, heavy workload and the stress of shift work.

Privacy laws prevent employers from probing why employees are absent, Stewart wrote. But many employees volunteer reasons, with colds, flu and headaches among the most common. For workers who do manual labour, back pain was also a commonly given reason.

Canada’s absenteeism rates are high compared to the U.S., where employers are allowed to count sick days as “vacation time,” and the U.K., where the average number of days lost was 6.8 per employee.

Stewart recommends businesses and public-sector organizations put programs in place to address absenteeism, including health and wellness programs for older workers and programs to deal with job stress.