I’ve just been reading an article from a US magazine that reports how sick leave amongst homeworkers appears to be 70% lower than for their office-based equivalents. As with all data, I think that raw statistic poses more questions than it provides answers.

What it doesn’t tell us, for example, is whether fewer individuals are actually getting sick.

Travel is definitely a factor when it comes to taking time off sick. Often the thought of the journey to work is worse than the prospect of being “under the weather” at your desk. Whether it’s a train, bus, or car journey it will be more daunting than usual if you aren’t feeling great. In a 40+ year career, I can think of several occasions when I’ve got up feeling poorly, got ready as usual but pulled out of finally heading off to work as I just can’t face the journey. Now, as a remote worker, I just have to get from my bed to my desk 20m away.

Hands up all those who have worked with a colleague who always battles their way in to work when they aren’t well. Historically, at this point, some of my team would have been pointing the finger at me. Does that make me a hero, or a “super spreader” who brings in a cold and promptly hands it on to the whole team? Staying home, and not going in, is sometimes the better option for everyone. That way one person is off for a couple of days and that’s it. Rather than lay the whole office low.

In the era of remote working these two dimensions of illness – the thought of travel and the risk of spreading – have been taken out of the equation. So perhaps no wonder sickness rates have dropped. Plus of course, remote workers are not being exposed to as many people every day. That probably explains why many of us haven’t had colds or seasonal flu in the past 18 months. We simply haven’t mixed as much.

However, as things return more to normal would we all be healthier working from home? I think there are real underlying issues here that we have to think about.

In an article earlier this year I talked about my own fitness journey during COVID. I exercised more and lost three stones in weight. However, I am really struggling to maintain that healthier regime now I am returning to more normal ways of working. When we had an office in London, I’d easily do 10,000 steps a day. At home, unless I fit in a run, I’ll struggle to do 3,000. Just this morning I sneaked a couple of digestives with my morning coffee. So, exercise down, calories up is the real risk. How much do we talk to our people about the importance of a healthy lifestyle when home working?

And now we are not faced with the journey to work, or the risk of spreading, will we just “soldier on” rather than take time off if genuinely unwell? Well, the answer, based on last week, might be yes. I had a nasty bug that really hit me for best part of three days. I didn’t tell anyone at Chiumento. And nobody could have observed me struggling. I gritted my teeth and just got on with it.

If that’s happening with physical illness, how much more is happening below the surface – ie mental health? Have we given home workers the permission and confidence to say “I’m not OK”? Or would that be considered a sign of weakness? It depends ultimately on your business culture and trust in leaders to respond positively to cries for help. At Chiumento, as part of our migration to home working, we trained 4 staff out of 11 as mental health first aiders in the hope we’d recognise problems at an early stage. How many businesses have that kind of resource?

My decision to keep going wasn’t without consequences. I’ve looked at the quality of what I did last week, and it was below my normal standards. Did I make the best decisions? Probably not. Would I have recovered faster had I just taken care of myself? Almost certainly. What I can say for sure is that neither the business nor I gained from me being at my home desk unwell.

We all have sick leave policies. However, do they cut both ways? Do we encourage people who are genuinely ill to focus on recovery? Or do we just use policies to manage sick days downwards irrespective of the impact on performance and long-term well-being?

The Chiumento annual leave policy states “… believes that annual leave is important for the well-being of its employees. We encourage all staff to take their full annual leave entitlement every year”. That couldn’t be clearer. There’s no equivalent statement in our sick leave policy that highlights the importance of taking time to recover properly from illness. We need to look at that.

The fact we can look at that reflects that as a business we trust our people not to abuse the system. In the same way we trust people to work remotely, with minimal supervision, every working day. Another example of why culture and values are so fundamental to good people management.

The moral of all this is that just crudely looking at the number of days of sick leave taken doesn’t necessarily mean healthier people or organisations. The risk is that home workers are masking and/or under-reporting ill health and businesses are assuming less sick days means everyone is in a better place.

Organisations need to think much harder about managing physical and mental health, especially for remote workers. Unrecognised and untreated, many conditions have a tendency to get worse. Meaning even longer absences in the long run.

Here at Chiumento, we’ve been fully remote working for over 4 years. And we are still learning how that requires our leadership behaviours and people processes to change. We are always happy to share what we’ve learned so feel free to call us on +44 20 7224 3307 and set up a conversation.