Can employees call in sick with a hangover?

Nearly a third of workers call in sick after a night of binge drinking - but is a hangover a valid reason to miss work?

Can employees call in sick with a hangover?

It’s a problem most teams have faced: an employee calling in sick after what managers suspect to be a night of heavy drinking. Indeed, the consequences of a nasty hangover can spill over at work.

While a worker wouldn’t normally admit to tipping over from the influence of alcohol, some cite the ill effects as an excuse to skip a day on the job. But is a hangover a valid reason to miss work?

Costly mistakes
The thought of reckless drinking disrupting one’s flow of work the next day is frowned upon in professional circles.

But nearly a third of employees (32%) still call in sick after a night of binge drinking, a report from PwC showed. This makes hangovers the top reason for employees to take a sick day.

In the UK, where the equivalent of 17 million workdays is lost to alcohol-related illnesses, such disruptions are costing employers £1.7bn (US$2.27bn) in productivity each year, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

Despite the massive hit employers take, most experts would agree: letting an employee stay home to recover would be wiser than allowing them to come to work feeling sluggish and unable to concentrate.

Apart from the worker’s physical and mental impairment, one issue that arises when a hungover employee is forced to show up to work is the impact of their performance on work quality.

A woozy worker may end up committing costly mistakes, drag others in the process, and even pose a safety risk to those around them. This is especially true for workers in safety-sensitive roles.

The US Department of Transportation, for instance, requires drug and alcohol testing among aviation, railway, and other transportation employees to ferret out those who prove to be a hazard to the travelling public.

“If you’re physically incapacitated and unable to do work, then you would call in sick,” said Gita Anand, an employment law expert from Miller Thomson LLP. “If you have a real doozer of a hangover and you can’t work, then you call in sick.”

Providing medical proof
As with any occasional illness, employees might be able to take a sick day for their hangover without having to provide a doctor’s note. “They simply call and say they are too ill to work,” Anand said.

For Laura Scampion, partner at DLA Piper New Zealand, taking a day off to recuperate isn’t necessarily wrong, but it may warrant proof that a worker is indeed incapacitated that day.

“It would be unusual for an employee to call in sick and explicitly cite that they’re hungover,” Scampion said.

“But if they ring and say, ‘I’ve got a banging headache, I can’t think straight, and I’m not very well,’ then that is technically being sick.”

Scampion recommends absentees present a medical certificate for good measure. “You can get a doctor’s note for a hangover,” she said.

The medical certificate not only serves as documentary evidence – it also works to dissuade others from partying too hard then using “illness” as an alibi to miss work, Scampion explained.

“I think that’s a deterrent to calling in sick with a hangover because the employer can say, ‘Well, at our cost, you need to go and get a doctor’s note,’” she said. “But actually going to the doctor with a hangover is a little bit embarrassing.”

Employee responsibility
In 2017, an employee in Tasmania was immediately dismissed when she failed to come to work after she was allegedly inebriated the night before.

The employer said the worker breached the company code of conduct, which prohibits employees from consuming alcohol to the point that they would be unable to perform tasks.

While the Fair Work Commission (FWC) said the dismissal was “harsh,” it ruled that the company had a valid reason to terminate the employment.

According to the commission, the employee missed work after she had “voluntarily embarked upon a course of conduct that resulted in incapacity for work.”

“The situation is perhaps made worse by the applicant’s acknowledgment that she could have gone to bed early and been fit for work the next day,” the FWC said.

In this situation, the employer already had workplace policies in place concerning absences due to alcohol consumption. But the commission reprimanded the company for its “harsh” treatment of the employee. Managers should thus clarify:

1) The extent management would be willing to tolerate alcohol consumption in relation to one’s attendance and performance at work; and

2) The steps management would take should alcohol consumption negatively impact one’s attendance and performance.

Repeat offenders
Waking up to a grinding headache after a night of drinking happens to the best of us. But what about individuals who deliberately – and repeatedly – miss work because of a hangover?

“If you intentionally put yourself in a situation that will lead to your own incapacity to do work and you do it over and over, then you may be breaching a fundamental obligation,” Anand said. “Those actions may attract a disciplinary response if it happens on a regular basis.”

This brazen violation of workplace policy is “not innocent absenteeism,” Anand said.

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