The flu season is in full swing. Germs are having a field day so that cold and flu medication is flying off pharmacies' counters.
Jokes about the notable difference between a man cold and its female counterpart bring a smile to raw mornings. Yet employees reporting sick is no joke. It's not just the problems of being short-staffed since HR departments also need to adjust to the consequences of the new procedures following changes to sick leave procedures that essentially cut down on medical certification for very short periods of illness.
Sick Leave Entitlement in Malta varies from industry to industry and may depend on duration of employment. Even though collective agreements may stipulate employer specific rules and regulations, the parameters remain an amalgamation of the Employment and Industrial Act (Cap. 452), the Social Security Act (Cap. 318) as amended by ACT XVI of 2017 together with the Professional Offices Wages Council Wage Regulation Order (S.L.452.39). As a result, full-time employees are entitled to 20 days of sick leave on a full time basis without any threat to job security. In contrast, part-timers are entitled to a pro-rata number of days which are also paid in full plus and carry no risk of job loss.
Up to 2017, all employees were obliged to produce and submit a blue certificate (compiled and signed by a doctor) to the Social Security Department for the entire period of illness. This system enabled the government to cover part of the employees' wage during sick leave once the sick period extended to the fourth day and beyond as long as social security contributions had been paid. The relevant copy/copies of the blue certificate would be passed on to the employer for internal records.
Budgetary announcements in 2017 have relaxed this system resulting in changes since January 2018. While the rules for more than three days of sick leave still stand, sick leave for three days or less no longer needs to be certified by a medical doctor. A note stating the nature of illness and return-to-work-date suffices though the employee is still bound to notify his/her absence from work. Nevertheless, an employer may still ask for a doctor's certificate which renders the legal amendments a contradiction in terms.
While the new system cuts down on red tape at Social Security offices and gains political mileage, it has created a grey area in the workplace specifically where occupational medicine is concerned since this relates to both the treatment and prevention of illness and/or injury sustained at work. The annual flu epidemic demands special attention for the simple reason that the risk of contagion is very high. Schools in Malta must follow strict guidelines as to how to prevent spreading the virus together with how to deal with students who turn up sick in the morning, or come down with flu symptoms during the school day. Targeting schools is necessary because they are notorious breeding grounds for viral transmissions.
Offices too are highly encouraged to follow the same guidelines even where the staff complement is small. During the flu season numbers are irrelevant for it only takes one member of staff to sneeze or cough inappropriately or to make tactile contact with an infected surface for the virus to wreak havoc. Moreover, insufficient hand hygiene particularly if one sneezes/coughs in one's hands and AC units working at full blast further put the respiratory virus into free fall. Targeting public transport should also be a priority because buses are another fertile ground for viral transmissions.
What is actually happening vis a vis medical certification?
While blue medical certificates are still required for illness lasting more than three days, to date employers in Malta are free to opt for (or out of) hiring the services of a company doctor which translates into a matter of luck whether members of staff are faced with a regulated company policy. Unfortunately, some companies do not maintain a level playing field because the company doctor's service is not utilised across the board. HR may have its valid reasons to act in this way, but three is no denying that workers feel aggrieved and discriminated against when this happens. More so if their sick leave is genuine.
Meanwhile, a number of doctors are irritated because they feel that they are being used as sergeant majors to cut down on abuse. The irony is that the new system ups such exploitation because no medical certificate is required for up to three days of illness. Admittedly, HR should be responsible for obvious patterns of abuse plus today's readily available software axes all excuses to record and monitor absenteeism from the workplace. It is therefore no surprise that the Malta College of Family Doctors has been lobbying for a clearer legal framework on the procedures to adopt whenever employees report sick.
While loss of productivity on account of the flu epidemic hogs the January and February headlines, presenteeism (people reporting to work when sick) is only beginning to be spotlighted. Addiction to work, escapism from personal problems, striving to impress, bad time-management and underperformance are the main reasons driving this phenomenon which can lead to poor health and exhaustion apart from productivity loss. Presenteeism during the winter months only adds to the flu epidemic. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) are gaining ground to put a stop to employees reporting sick.
What are the solutions?
- Incorporate hygiene directives to prevent and deal with the flu epidemic in current legislation.
- Make quarterly unannounced spot checks on work places by competent government health officials obligatory.
- Ensure a safe and healthy work environment.
- Ensure that company policy (abiding by in vigore Maltese laws) is applicable to all staff members.
- Monitor and act upon suspicious sick leave patterns to curtail abuse.
- Ensure hygiene directives re preventing transmission of the flu virus are adhered to.
- Promote common sense and courtesy especially as regards presenteeism.
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