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Going to work sick a 'social norm' in Singapore which needs to be discouraged: Experts

SINGAPORE – Mr David Yong, 24, who works at a production company, said that before the Covid-19 outbreak, some of his colleagues used to come to work with mild flu symptoms.

Going to work sick a 'social norm' in Singapore which needs to be discouraged: Experts

Employees are still going to work despite calling in sick because they are concerned about a backlog of work or being a burden to colleagues.

SINGAPORE – Mr David Yong, 24, who works at a production company, said that before the Covid-19 outbreak, some of his colleagues used to come to work with mild flu symptoms. 

“I think it is an acceptable social norm to hear about someone with mild symptoms but chooses to go to work, although it is not the best (behaviour),” he said. 

Indeed, several employees TODAY spoke to said that before the outbreak, it was normal to see unwell colleagues at work as many were worried about a backlog of work or having their colleagues cover for them. 

Such behaviour has come under scrutiny after the Government said on Tuesday (March 10) that the “socially irresponsible” actions of a few individuals led to the spread of many locally transmitted cases here. 

About one-fifth of the 160 confirmed cases in Singapore continued to go to work and carried on with their daily activities despite being ill, said the Ministry of Health (MOH). 

It gave the example of a cluster linked to Wizlearn Technologies at Science Park Road which has 14 confirmed cases including nine employees of the company. Investigations found that three employees had gone about their daily activities, despite being unwell. 

“Socially irresponsible behaviour poses a risk to all,” MOH said. "The measures we have implemented will not work if individuals do not cooperate and continue to engage in socially irresponsible behaviour."

MOH had already advised doctors last month to issue patients with respiratory symptoms a five-day medical certificate so that individuals could stay home to rest instead of going to work. 


Ms Hazel Lim, 23, a social media executive said that many companies in Singapore still think that some workers who take medical leave might not actually be sick.

“I do think that there are plenty of companies in Singapore that still hold this negative stigma towards taking medical leave,” she said, adding that this is not apparent in her company and her colleagues would not think that of each other.

But she said that the misperception is slowly eroding and is not so prevalent in newer companies, or firms which embrace flexible work hours or working from home. 

Mr Rasyad Phiroze, 28, who works in digital media, said some employees who are unwell go to work because they are concerned about having a backlog of work.  

“For me, I would feel really guilty if I have to take the medical leave as I wouldn't want to trouble colleagues to take on my work and I would be concerned about having a backlog that I might have to clear on the weekends,” he said. 

Singapore Management University’s Professor of Sociology Paulin Tay said that despite the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003, people are still going to work while sick. This is because some may be too young to remember the situation then.

“During Sars, people were more cautious and aware if they had respiratory symptoms,” she said. “But after Sars, they returned to their old habits.”

She added: “A whole new generation will rise again with no clue what infectious diseases outbreaks are and the whole cycle will repeat.”


Experts told TODAY that building a culture of trust between employers and employees, and re-examining how workers are assessed would go a long way in encouraging employees to take medical leave instead of reporting to work sick. 

Mr Rob Bryson, managing director of recruitment consultancy Robert Walters Singapore, said that building a culture of trust can help discourage people from coming to work sick. 

For example, Robert Walters has a policy that allows employees who are feeling unwell to take the day off, without a medical certificate. 

“Such policies let employees feel trusted and that helps them feel reassured,” Mr Bryson said. 

Ms Joerin Yao, managing director of human resource consultancy Enable Group, reiterated that it is important to assess employees based on their deliverables. 

“It's important for leaders to build an organisational culture of trust and empowerment so that the employees are measured by their deliverables and not based on their presence in the office,” she said. 

Mr Adrian Tan, 40, a researcher for human resources technology at PeopleStrong, which develops digital tools, said that to build stronger trust between employers and employees, bosses can look towards more regular appraisals.

“Without regular appraisals, employers cannot assess how workers are performing and may base their assessment on attendance,” he said.  

“This can lead them to fill in the blanks themselves that an employee may be performing badly due to his attendance and trust can never be built this way.”


Employers told TODAY that especially amid the Covid-19 outbreak, they are discouraging those who are sick from going into work and giving workers "the benefit of the doubt" when they take medical leave.

Mr Nick Lee, 48, director of AIT Technologies, which has 12 employees, said that he encourages his employees to see the doctor when they are sick. 

“I would not force my staff to work when they are sick — that is irresponsible and selfish,” he said. “If they are sick, I would tell them to go and see the doctor.” 

The owner of an education centre with about 40 employees, who only wants to be known as Mr Tan, said that he is aware that some people who take medical leave might not be truthful. 

“Some who take an MC could probably be because they want to have a long weekend,” said Mr Tan, who is in his 40s. “But we are being more gracious during this period and giving them the benefit of doubt."

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human resource sick leave Covid-19 coronavirus

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