rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

The benefits of sick leave -- and of absenteeism

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca in its summer fundraiser today for as little as $1 per month!

Photo: jamelah e./flickr

Most of us know the old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." That's why we're told by teachers to keep our kids home from school when they're sick, so they get better and they don't get others sick as well. It's why there's increased focus on leading healthy lives, prevention and wellness.

However, the benefits of prevention seem to have been neglected in recent reports over the absenteeism in the workplace. Last week, Statistics Canada released a report showing that while public sector workers took more time off for sickness and family leave, most of this was explained by the higher rates of female, older and unionized workers in the public sector. Accounting for these differences explains 80 per cent of the gap in sick leave between public and private sectors, with the difference down to just 0.8 days.

Yesterday the Conference Board of Canada came out with a report calculating that absenteeism from work costs the Canadian economy $16.6 billion a year. This will be the first of three reports in a series on this issue from the Conference Board. But in the coverage of this report, I didn't see any mention of the benefits of sick leave and of absenteeism, which is to prevent workers (and their families) from getting more sick. People get sick and sometimes work, or overwork, causes sickness and death.

So what's the cost of illness in Canada?

There have been a number of recent studies done on the cost of mental illness for the Canadian economy. Just a year ago, the same Conference Board released a report that calculated the annual costs of just mental illness for the Canadian economy at over $20 billion.  Other analyses estimate the cost of mental illness much higher. Don Drummond from TD Bank estimated it at $33 billion a few years ago. A recent report for the Mental Health commission estimated costs of mental illness to be over $40 billion annually.

And what about the cost of other illnesses? The most recent comprehensive report I found from a quick search was a 15-year-old archived report from Health Canada, which calculated the Economic Burden of Illness in Canada at $159.4 billion for 1998, which was equivalent to 17 per cent of Canada's economic output that year.

Unfortunately, the federal government hasn't updated or published an updated version of this report, but if we assume ratios are similar, the economic burden of illness would work out to $300 billion in 2011 and $310 billion in 2012, based on 17 per cent of GDP. So the costs of sickness and illness at over $300 billion a year are almost 20 times the cost of absenteeism at $16.6 billion annually. Other calculations estimate the cost of "presenteeism" -- when people come to work even when they're too sick, stressed or distracted to be productive -- to be 3 to 15 times the cost of absenteeism.

While the old adage about how "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" hasn't been translated to metric terms, it looks like it still holds and quite accurately, with 16 ounces to the pound. A few days of sick and family leave really are worth it in preventing much higher costs of sickness and mental illness.

As pressures and time stress increases at work and home, it looks like we should have more time for sick and family leave, not less. With these types of payoffs, it's worth it. While prevention certainly won't end illness and the ratios may not be precise, it appears the old adage does apply: an ounce of sick leave can prevent a pound of illness.

Photo: jamelah e./flickr

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.