Doctor’s Note: Yes or No?

As employment lawyers, we are frequently asked whether an employer can (or should) require a medical note if an employee is away from work due to illness.

Since we are right in the thick of the “home sick from work” season, we thought it timely to share our thoughts on this tricky question on our blog.

As a starting point, employers can request medical notes from employees to verify that time off is medically required, i.e. to confirm that the employee is truly sick.  The employer is not allowed to know the illness or diagnosis, but can get confirmation that the absence is medically-related.

In our experience most employees who need time off from work are away for only a day or two for intermittent colds or flus.  Therefore, the issue that comes up is whether it is really necessary and effective to require that employees provide a note for short periods off – in other words, you can ask for a note, but should you?

The answer involves striking a balance between ensuring that employees do not abuse sick time on the one hand, and creating unworkable or inflexible requirements for your staff on the other.

Under the BC Human Rights Code, employers have a duty to accommodate employees to the point of undue hardship. This includes providing employees with time off when they are dealing with medical issues and accommodating them to the point at which it becomes unduly burdensome on the employer.

While many employers allow their employees to take a specific number of sick days per year, many do not.  Regardless, employees have the right to take time off if they are genuinely ill and the employer must accommodate that time off.  If an employer wants to be certain that the absence is valid, the only way to do so may be to require a medical note.

However, while asking for a medical note may seem reasonable, doing so can actually harm the employment relationship.  To obtain a note, the employee will need to make an appointment, go to the doctor’s office, spend time sitting in a waiting room with other patients, and likely pay a fee for a note that simply confirms their illness.  If the employee is home from work ill with the flu, this process can cut into the time needed for recovery at home (potentially extending their absence from work) and place a significant burden on the employee.  As well, requiring a sick note can send the message to the employee that the employer does not trust them.

Ultimately, unless an employee is going to be absent from work for an extended period of time (say, for more than three days), or he or she seems to be “playing the system”, a medical note requirement is inefficient and unnecessary. Not only is it inconvenient for the employee, but it can also undermine the level of trust and communication needed to maintain a productive, ongoing workplace relationship. And in our opinion, a little trust goes a long way.

Have questions about employee absenteeism? Contact us!

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