Monday, August 13, 2012

Abusing medical leave

Howard Levitt is an employment lawyer who writes for the Financial Post. He tends to favour the employer’s perspective in workplace disputes. While I normally just dismiss what he writes, his latest column is an interesting example of worker blaming.

The gist is that workers use doctors’ notes for time off due to stress frequently, illegitimately and as a way to get back at their employer. While there are likely some folks who abuse the right to time off due to injury, Levitt offers no evidence or even a guess as to how frequently this occurs. Rather, we are treated to this polemic:
Too many doctors hand out medical notes as freely as if they were toilet paper.

Really, what do these doctors even know? They are GPs, not psychiatrists or occupational health specialists. They seldom conduct independent psychiatric tests to ascertain whether their patients are genuinely so stressed as to be disabled from performing any work.

Often its a scam. An employee has a workplace dispute, decides that he or she doesn't want to work and goes to their family doctor, or more frequently, a clinic, to obtain a note. Those notes usually say little more than "Off work for seven days for medical reasons" or something equally nondescriptive.
What research there is on malingering while on workers’ compensation (a similar phenomenon) suggests that rate is very low. In part, this is because the motive (termed secondary gain) for scamming the system is largely offset by the secondary losses associated with being away from work while injured or sick (e.g., loss of reputation, risk of termination, harassment upon return). Interestingly, fraud by employers is much more common (cough, cough).

Odd that a lawyer would fail to provide any real evidence to substantiate his allegations. About the only evidence Levitt musters is: “I have had a rash of recent cases, across Canada, with the same issue”.

Ah, anecdotal evidence, you slippery minx. Sometimes anecdotal evidence is quite useful—if used as part of a careful methodology. Yet most of the time, anecdotal information is misleading. Anecdotes tend to be examples of the unusual (otherwise we wouldn’t bother remembering or retelling them).

That is to say, Levitt’s experience likely isn’t representative of what happens in workplaces across the country. Rather, he is likely seeing a few egregious cases that employers have decided to bring to his firm for attention. He then extrapolates from these as if they are representative of the 20 million-odd Canadians who work.

Interestingly, the comments that follow Levitt’s article (which usually represent a fairly hawkish view of employment) almost universally reject his position. They also raise some good questions. Why are workers so stressed? Why don’t employers reduce stress levels? Why do workers feel compelled to go to a doctor instead of seeking a workplace accommodation?

-- Bob Barnetson

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