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Commentary: Why do employers still insist on an MC for staff who call in sick?

Employees should be given some flexibility to call in sick without providing a medical certificate, say two observers.

SINGAPORE: Last month, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Irene Quay called on the Government to encourage employers to allow their employees to take up to three days of non-consecutive sick leave each year without submitting medical certificates (MCs).

Currently, people who seek medical leave from work must visit a registered medical practitioner to get a MC, even if they need just one or two days to get over a cold.

While some employers in Singapore have embraced such a trust-based honour sick leave system, a vast number of companies still require employees to produce a MC when taking sick leave.

HR experts say the fear of employees malingering and abusing the system seems to be a common concern that holds back employers from exploring an honour system in Singapore. 

It might do better that these employers put aside their fears and give themselves an opportunity to trust their employees to embrace the system without abusing it.

After all, employees are considered the most important asset to every company and they are more likely to be engaged at work when they are valued and trusted highly by their employers.

Implementing the system is a good way to tackle this trust issue within companies. But instead of resorting to a hard lever and legislating that companies do so, it’s worth looking at other ways to encourage companies to start modestly with a pilot to test waters before committing to making it official.

After all, they might find it’s in their interests to do so but as the saying goes, you won’t know until you try it.


As organisations move towards flexible working, employees should also be given some flexibility to call in sick without providing a MC. 

For common ailments such as a headache or a cold, employees might already have some medication on hand, so they do not need to see a doctor just to obtain a MC. Instead, what they really need is rest.

Leading software developer HubSpot, which has an unlimited honour sick leave system in place since 2010, found that their employees became more engaged and focused because they spent less time on obtaining MCs and more time to rest and recuperate. 

This has helped the organisation to attract and retain talents, as employees are given the autonomy to decide if they are fit or unfit for work.

(Photo: Unsplash/Elizabeth Lies)

Having an honour system in place also signals to employees that the organisation trusts them. In turn, employees might be more willing to contribute to the organisation beyond their formal job scope.


Although there might be a few inevitable cases of employees abusing the honour system in the early stages of implementation, organisations have found that accountability generally improved over time as employees take responsibility for their own sick leave.

Also, even if a few employees do malinger, it beats having an unwell employee showing up at work and infecting others within the workplace. If employees have the intention to malinger for a day or two, they are less likely to be focused and efficient at work anyway.

Worst still, it can lead to presenteeism, which is costly for the organisation.

READ: An ironman mentality is leading many to turn up for work despite being sick, a commentary

Organisations often forget that the current sick leave system doesn’t make it any harder to skip work.

Employees are still able to obtain MC for ailments (such as stomach cramps or headache) that are hard to verify. Organisations then have to cover the incurred medical costs, even though their employees were not ill.

Of course, if an employee tends to call in sick after weekends, the manager should consider having a chat with the employee to understand what’s driving all this. 

It is also reasonable for the organisation to have some guidelines in place, such as a no-time-off period, when there is an important event or deadline approaching.

Fundamentally, trust works both ways, but organisations should take the first step in building that relationship as they have the power and means to do so.


Without the need to produce MCs, the stress of having to head to a GP or polyclinic is significantly reduced, especially for minor ailments. This gives employees ample time to recover, and they might even return to work fully recuperated and earlier than expected.

Most companies in Singapore require medical certificates from approved doctors when employees take sick leave. (Photo: Monica Kotwani)

READ: Why nobody will thank you for soldiering on at work, a commentary

As with the case of flexible working, organisations should also recognise that an honour sick leave system ultimately ensures that employees are making good use of their time. If employees are well enough to work and have a good sense of responsibility, they will turn up for work.

At the same time, if they are not feeling well, they should be given the autonomy to take a few days off from work. After all, many studies have shown that employees’ productivity and performance are enhanced when they are given the flexibility to telecommute or attend to non-work issues during traditional office hours.

An honour sick leave system also creates a positive workplace culture where employees are treated as responsible working adults who are accountable for their work ethics and moral values. In a trusting work environment, honest working relationships are developed and the employees are less likely to malinger.

It is time Singapore-based organisations implemented an honour sick leave system, as its benefits far outweigh its costs. It is also a win-win situation for both employers and employees. 

Employers can foster loyalty and boost productivity through mutual trust and respect, while employees can rest and recuperate without infecting others.

Carys Chan is Lecturer/Assistant Professor in Management at RMIT University. Shirley Tay is a PhD Candidate in the School of Management, RMIT University.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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