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A man walks with a face mask on in Toronto, March 11, 2021.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Almost 40 per cent of Canadians went to work sick at least once during the pandemic, according to a new poll that examines workplace culture and the importance of paid sick days.

Twenty per cent of respondents said they rarely went into work sick in the past year, 19 per cent reported they went in several times, and 59 per cent said they never went to work while ill. The results did not include those working from home due to COVID-19 precautions.

The survey, conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research in partnership with the Future Skills Centre and the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, asked 5,913 Canadians what they would do, both before and during the pandemic, if they were sick on a workday. It also asked why they would go to work sick and found that workplace culture is a more common determinant than lack of access to sick days.

“It’s going to be really important to hold both ideas in our heads at the same time,” said Andrew Parkin, executive director of the Environics Institute. “I’m definitely trying to underline the importance of workplace culture, but in doing that I don’t want to deflect attention away from the issue of paid sick days. That’s clearly important.”

Parliament passed legislation this month providing 10 paid sick days to federally regulated workers.

The survey, conducted between June 1 and 28, asked workers what would have happened in pre-pandemic times if they woke up on a workday feeling sick. Fifty-one per cent of respondents said they probably would have gone to work with a cold or the flu. Of the total number of all workers, 22 per cent said they would have gone to work because they had no paid sick days, compared with 29 per cent who cited “another reason”; 24 per cent said they would have stayed home and been paid, while 15 per cent would have stayed home and not been paid. Ten per cent said they didn’t know what they would have done.

The poll found that workers who are more likely to be disadvantaged in the workplace – such as part-time, service, sales, low-income, younger, immigrant and racialized employees – were no more likely than Canadians in advantaged, full-time jobs to go to work sick before the pandemic.

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However, the likelihood of having paid sick days is dramatically different between these groups. More than two-thirds of full-time employees said they get paid sick days, compared with 34 per cent of part-time workers.

“Job security clearly translates into the ability to take time off when sick; job insecurity therefore has consequences for public health,” reads the report, titled “Working When Sick.”

A racial and gender divide also appeared in response to the question. Sixty-one per cent of respondents who identified as white said they would get paid sick days, compared with 52 per cent of racialized workers. Men – 62 per cent – were more likely than women – 51 per cent – to get paid if they stayed home sick.

Respondents were asked to choose one or more reasons why they would go to work sick pre-pandemic, causing overlap between responses.

Most respondents – 46 per cent – said they went to work sick because they felt their workplace depended on them. Almost as many – 43 per cent – said it was because they would not get paid if they didn’t show up. The next most common reasons: 33 per cent felt they had too much work to do, 18 per cent felt pressure from their boss to work, and 15 per cent didn’t want people to think they couldn’t do their job. Another 13 per cent felt they would be bored or unproductive if they stayed home, and 7 per cent didn’t have the equipment they needed to work from home while ill.

The report said the effort to change workplace culture to ensure employees don’t feel pressure to show up when they are sick may be more challenging than changing labour regulations around paid sick days. Mr. Parkin said those culture changes must come from both employers, who create expectations, and employees, who set an example for their colleagues.

The survey has no margin of error because it is not a strict probability sample, Mr. Parkin said. Survey results are weighted by age, gender, region, education, racial identity and Indigenous identity to ensure they are representative of the Canadian population as a whole.

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