The US has never been known for its stellar leave policies. Whether you believe that the responsibility for mandating appropriate employee benefits should fall on the shoulders of the federal government or individual employers, that is a debate for another day. For now—as businesses begin to reopen in the midst of a pandemic—rehab therapy practice leaders have no choice but to ensure that their sick leave policies are up to par. Otherwise, they may compromise the safety and wellbeing of their employees, patients, and communities. While this really should have been the standard prior to the current global crisis, this is a great opportunity to shore up your policies to ensure they actually support your team—and align with the company values you want to uphold.

The Catch-22

If you’re still on the fence about whether expanding your sick leave is a worthwhile endeavour, Suzanne Lucas—the author of this Inc. article—quotes a physical therapist assistant named Tina whose employer has a sick leave policy with some pretty serious issues: “We get sick time but can’t use it [until] all our vacation time is gone, so people come to work sick. Even if we have a note from the doctor, we still get dinged for it. So many occurrences result in disciplinary action.” 

You can see that this type of policy leaves employees with an incredibly difficult decision: stay home and take care of themselves now—and lose out on being able to take time off to travel or spend time with their families or friends later—or push themselves into the office now to preserve their much-needed personal time. If you had to use your vacation time to take a sick day, you might go into the office, too—even if you were feeling terrible, and even if you might get others sick.

The Impact

If you think about this lose-lose scenario from the patient’s perspective, it doesn’t get any better. As Lucas argues, “What if you’re recovering from a serious illness or injury and the physical therapist assistant who works inches from your face and touches your body is sneezing and coughing into her mask?” 

As a patient, you may not return if this situation occurred during a normal visit when the country wasn’t in the throes of a pandemic. If it happens anytime in 2020, you may just decide to bolt mid-appointment—and contact your Better Business Bureau to launch a serious complaint about your healthcare provider’s lack of safety precautions. That would be pretty terrible for the practice—but even if it doesn’t come to that, creating policies that incentivize employees to risk their own health and the health of others is not a good business—let alone people—practice. Instead, when creating or updating your practice’s sick leave policy, make sure it aligns everyone’s motivations.

The Main Characteristics of a Good Policy

So, what should your sick leave policy look like? According to Lucas, the basics include:

  • Skipping the doctor’s note requirement for illnesses that require no more than three days off (unless you’re paying for the visit). After all, “Most illnesses don’t require treatment.”
  • Allowing employees to use their sick time—not their vacation time—to care for sick children. (Depending on the job role, allowing staff to work from home can be helpful in these situations, too. For example, if the employee is well enough to conduct telehealth appointments, he or she may be able to temporarily shift to this mode of care delivery.)
  • Granting employees at least 10 days of sick leave per year—with at least five of those paid. (For reference, “In 2018, the average employee took 2.5 days of sick leave.”)
  • Complying with all FMLA and ADA requirements.
  • Providing ample cleaning supplies—in the bathrooms, entryway, treatment rooms, and all exercise areas—and encouraging employees to use them and keep their workspaces and patient treatment areas clean. 

Understandably, it can be hard for small businesses to pay employees who aren’t able to work in the short term, but the cost of having an entire office out sick—or having a high rate of employee churn because staff members don’t feel taken care of—is much higher. Add a highly contagious illness to the mix, and there really isn’t any other way to go. So, instead of getting tangled up in the bare-minimum requirements outlined by the government, craft a policy that you believe best serves your people—and your practice. As Lucas reminds us, “Remember, you can always be nicer than the law allows.”