Monday, November 2, 2009
On medical leave and the employee
Medical leave is an employee benefit that is given in the form of paid leave which employees can use during periods of sickness. In most countries, there are statutory laws which provide for and protect the employee’s right to medical leave, especially for the rank-and-file employees who seldom possess the bargaining power to negotiate the terms of their employment.
The approach typically taken in Western countries, with regard to an employee taking medical leave, displays compassion and understanding. If an employee falls ill and requires rest for a couple of days, most companies will allow the employee to call in sick. There is no need for the employee to produce a medical certificate issued by a doctor in order to take short term medical leave. Only in cases of longer medical leave, e.g. four or more days, will medical certification be required. This approach is based on mutual trust and respect accorded between the employer and the employee. The underlying principle which companies adopt, is that the employee is regarded as a mature adult and is trusted not to abuse the benefit given to him or her. Equally, the employee appreciates the trust given, and does not abuse it.
The attitude adopted by the majority of companies in Singapore is markedly different. The employee is required to go to a doctor to obtain a medical certificate as proof of his or her sickness, even for just 1 day of rest. Otherwise, medical leave will not be granted, and the employee’s absence will be considered as unauthorised, with the consequences that the absence will be deducted from his or her annual leave or salary, and possibly, disciplinary action taken.
Why do employers in Singapore treat their employees in this way? Well, Singapore employers claim they are afraid that medical leave benefits will be abused, resulting in a loss of productivity at work.
But if we think about it, the prevailing system in Singapore doesn’t really do much to prevent the abuse of medical leave benefits. Most companies will concede that employees who are determined to use up all their medical leave, will do so anyway whether or not their employers require them to see a doctor and obtain medical certification.
Does abuse exist in the Western system? Yes, of course there are some individuals who will tend to abuse the trust given to them. However, these are isolated cases, and by and large, the majority of employees do not abuse the system.
Now, the cost of providing health care to employees in Singapore is expensive – according to one estimate, it costs between S$800 and S$1,400 annually per worker. The larger companies in Singapore usually procure group health insurance for their employees to cover their medical expenses. However, many small and medium businesses find such group health insurance plans expensive, and they typically choose to reimburse their employees’ medical expenses on a per occurrence basis instead. What Singapore employers may have failed to realise, is that there is actually a cost-saving benefit if an employer allows its employees to call in sick without obtaining medical certification, i.e., medical expenses will not be incurred. Of course, this is in no way advocating that companies should do away with medical certification requirements just to save costs. The principle is about treating the employee as an adult.
To minimise the abuse of medical leave benefits, it is submitted that companies may consider giving small monetary rewards to employees who achieve full attendance (i.e. no medical leave taken) during the work year. Such a gesture will recognise the employees' efforts, and also serve as an incentive for them to keep healthy.
Hopefully, we will someday see a mindset change among Singapore employers in this aspect.