Some firms rethinking MC policy, but will an honour-based sick leave system be a reality in the long run?
SINGAPORE: At Ademco Security Group, employees can call in sick, be it for COVID-19 or other ailments, without having to submit a medical certificate (MC).
Prior to the pandemic, this no-MC-needed sick leave policy was already in place, although it was capped at just three days a year. But since about 18 months ago, “there is no more limit”, said group managing director Toby Koh.
“With COVID-19, we have become a lot more ‘kiasu’ because we are an essential service. Our engineers and technicians have to go out to clients’ sites and they also work in teams,” he told CNA.
“We are very cautious so what we’ve done is: If you’re feeling unwell and even if you haven’t tested positive, please stay home and rest,” said Mr Koh.
The issue of MCs has been under the spotlight in recent months, following an advisory and repeated reminders from authorities that workers who have COVID-19 do not require a doctor’s certification to be excused from work. This is to ensure that the local healthcare system does not become overloaded amid rising local infections.
Employers who "wilfully" refuse to comply with the advisory will have their work pass privileges suspended, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said this week.
Noting that “it was remarkable” that authorities have had to “explicitly” tell this to employers, experts like Singapore Human Resources Institute’s executive director Alvin Goh said sick leave policies in workplaces here must “adapt to the new normal”.
The 11 firms that responded to CNA’s queries for this story said they – either on their own accord or in line with the latest guidelines – do not require staff to present MCs as confirmation of COVID-19 infections.
Most said that photos of self-administered antigen rapid test (ART) results will suffice, while one asked that employees do their ART tests during video calls with a supervisor. Workers will be given time to rest and be excused from work, they said.
Some have taken it a step further.
Digital payments company Wise said since the start of 2022, its employees can take three days of sick leave a year without producing an MC, up from one day previously.
This allows those who need a longer time to recover from COVID-19 symptoms to do so. There may also be times when employees feel slightly under the weather, such as having a headache. Although not ill enough to visit a doctor, such instances "may prevent (employees) from showing up for work effectively”.
On top of that, employees at Wise also have three days of leave, dubbed “me days”, that they can “use as they wish, including as an alternative to sick leave or if they just need a break”.
“We believe in empowering our Wisers to make their own decisions by giving them autonomy and trust to do so, not just for work but also when it involves their mental and physical well-being,” said Wise Asia-Pacific’s people adviser Christine Yeo.
Over at gaming technology firm Razer, its human resource protocol does not require employees, be it working from home or in the office, to produce MCs if they are on medical leave for just a day.
IKEA Singapore said it is supportive of “any move toward progressive employment practices”, such as the Government’s call for an honour-based system of medical leave.
“Earlier in the year, we have been providing medical leave without the need for a doctor’s certificate for any co-worker who tests positive for COVID,” said its country human resource manager Aldys Kong.
“We will also use a general principle of trust and our values of common sense in conversations with our co-workers who experience symptoms but who do not test positive.”
FIRMS SAY THEY SEE THE NEED TO BE FLEXIBLE
Employers that CNA spoke to acknowledged the need to be flexible amid an ever-evolving pandemic.
For many smaller firms, this is the first time that they are doing away with submissions of MCs.
“It is a change from how we do things, but we also trust our staff,” said Ms Joyce Seow, group executive director at contract manufacturing firm Watson EP Industries.
“So far with the Omicron variant, most of our employees have very light symptoms so there is really no need to see the doctor. What they need is to rest at home … And if they go to the doctor, they might be adding to the stress of the healthcare system unnecessarily and exposing others to the risk.”
Likewise, Minor Food Singapore’s chief executive officer Dellen Soh said he does not see the need for employees to submit further proof beyond taking supervised ART tests via video calls, as he does “not think that people will pretend to have COVID-19”.
“We trust our staff to have integrity and having COVID-19 is quite poor thing (sic), so we will try to be as understanding as we can,” he said.
Most of the food and beverage, retail and manufacturing firms that CNA spoke to still require an MC for non-COVID ailments, although they said they have also been flexible in granting time off.
Mr Patrick Chan, chief executive of food caterer Kitchen Haus, said: “We do have test kits available in our kitchens so any time our staff feel uncomfortable, we encourage them to take a test.
“And if they say they really need to rest, we will let them take a break or go home for the day, without insisting on an MC. I think we do exercise a lot of flexibility and common sense.”
Being flexible has its benefits, some employers said.
“If everyone’s morale is good and feel that the company is more concerned about their health and if they are well-rested, then they will do better at work,” said Mr Koh, adding that peer responsibility has thus far ensured that the security firm’s no-MC-required system has worked well.
“As we work in teams, if somebody is not going to be able to work physically, that means their team mates will be doing their share of the work, especially for frontliners like the engineers.
“So far, we don’t believe anyone has abused that trust because they know other people will have to carry their weight."
AN HONOUR MC SYSTEM IN THE LONG RUN?
But while COVID-19 has nudged many to take the first step towards change, most employers said they are not convinced that an honour sick leave system can work beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fear remains that without the requirement of an MC, employees may malinger or feign illness to skip work.
This would be severely disruptive for businesses that require workers to be physically present at the workplace, such as F&B, they said. Often, these are sectors that are already facing labour shortages.
With close to 30 employees contracting COVID-19 over the past one month, Minor Food Singapore, which operates F&B chains like ThaiExpress and Xin Wang Hong Kong Cafe, has shortened business hours at some outlets. It is also mulling shutting some low-performing stores for a few days to direct manpower to busier outlets.
“COVID-19 is an exceptional event. We can follow the guidelines and do away with MCs because there is a certain way of determination, like testing positive on an ART test,” said Mr Soh. “But if you say, moving forward anyone can call in sick without MC, how are we going to determine?”
An honour-based MC policy may “open the floodgates” to potential abuse and disrupt company operations, which are problems that can be deterred by the need to visit a doctor, he added.
Indoor playground operator Kiztopia has similar concerns.
“As much as we want a trust-based system, there’s always a fine line to be drawn,” said CEO Heidi Tian, noting how the company does not enforce MCs if employees feel unwell at work and decide to take a day off.
“But if it continues into the second or third day, then we will need an MC. This helps to give us a little bit of control,” she added, describing an honour-based system as “very disruptive” for customer-facing industries.
Size is another factor to consider, some employers said.
Relocation start-up Moovaz said it has been nimble in executing its human resource policies – such as rolling out flexible working hours and not requiring MCs from staff at all – given its small size of just over 20 employees.
“We didn’t change our policies, but policies are just SOPs (standard operating procedures),” said its people lead Fione Goh.
“We are very flexible given our high-trust culture … and also because our team is not too big yet. But if we expand to, say, 1,000 staff, our challenges will be slightly different as we want to make sure we can strike a balance.”
Ademco said once “everything settles down, (it) will go back to the old policy of calling in sick without MC for three times a year”.
“COVID-19 is a really special situation where there’s an incubation period and is highly infectious, which warrants this change in policy,” Mr Koh explained. “But for the longer run, such a policy will be a decision for the Singapore leadership team to make after taking in views from all sides.”
Razer noted that it is currently exploring an honour-based sick leave system.
“As a performance-driven organisation, we are cognisant on how critical our employees’ well-being is to deliver the outcomes that matter. We advocate against presenteeism,” said vice-president and global head of human resource April Wan.
But the firm also noted the “significant” mindset shift needed to implement such a system and the risk of abuse. It is hence “taking prudence” in implementing such a policy for the time being, added Ms Wan.
Recruitment agency ManpowerGroup Singapore reckons it is “unlikely” for a fully trust-based sick leave system to take off in Singapore.
“Companies may opt to let employees take one to two days of sick leave without MC, but it is unlikely that companies will base the entire sick leave on an honour-based system,” said country manager Linda Teo.
Apart from the needs of different industries, such as those that need workers to be on-site or are operating on a lean headcount, the rising trend of remote working may also see people who feel mildly unwell preferring to work from home, instead of taking the day off.
The recent attention on attendance-related incentives, which have been described by authorities as going against fair employment practices, may also make it “challenging to implement an honour-based leave system while ensuring workers do not abuse it”, Ms Teo added.
“At the end of the day, the honour-based leave system is dependent on employers’ trust in their employees and employees reciprocating that trust.”
Such trust will undeniably take time to develop, said Mr Goh from the Singapore Human Resources Institute.
“Just like the concept of remote work and virtual meetings, COVID-19 has made many previously unimaginable scenarios possible. With remote work, companies can no longer measure performance based on inputs and are forced to measure based on output.
“However, a large portion of measuring based on deliverables can only be accomplished after trust has been established,” he told CNA.
But amid an ongoing war for talent, companies must change to not just focus on presenteeism. As he wrote in an earlier commentary, Mr Goh said employers should evaluate the performance of their workers based on what is delivered, and not the number of days in the office.
Firms can also go further to provide leave without the need for proof. Already, some organisations have introduced mental health leave which do not require any administrative proof.
“If we are to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, employers and employees need to examine the underlying issues, be it trust, operations or people matters. And insisting on paper proof of illness doesn’t address any of that," he said.