Should a hangover qualify as sick leave?

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It’s a dilemma that’s been around for as long as paid work itself – how to deal with hungover employees. It’s also a problem that costs Canadian organizations up to $22.3b in missed days and lost productivity every year.

Yet, most employees would be loath to admit they had taken a sick day off work because they were suffering from a hangover. This is likely because most workplaces would not consider a hangover a legitimate reason for sick leave.

However, according to employment lawyer Gita Anand, from Miller Thomson LLP, an employee who takes a day of sick leave to recover from a bad hangover is not necessarily in the wrong.

“If you’re physically incapacitated and unable to do work then you would call in sick. If you have a real doozer of a hangover and you can’t work then you call in sick,” Anand said.

Case law in Canada has confirmed that under collective agreements self-caused illness and injury such as hangovers, sunburn or cosmetic surgery is not a “determining factor for eligibility for paid sick leave,” she said.

“I’m sure it comes up in workplaces but often if it’s occasional illness people don’t offer a reason. They simply call and say they are too ill to work,” Anand said. “There will be cases where a hungover person shouldn’t come to work if they work in safety sensitive areas.”

If an employee’s condition is going to endanger themselves and others, it may be better that they don’t work, regardless of the reason for their illness.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour specifies that injuries and medical situations cause by an employee’s own actions still quality for emergency personal leave and gives the example of an individual getting drunk, falling down the stairs, and breaking their arm. Despite their role in the accident they still receive emergency leave. However, repetition and intention could lead to disciplinary action.

“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, and those actions may attract a disciplinary response if it happens on a regular basis,” Anand said. “It’s not innocent absenteeism.”

An employee who expresses an intention to get so drunk they will be too unwell to work the next day could also face disciplinary action.

Finally, if the frequent hangovers turn out to be related to alcoholism, employers have a duty to accommodate. This requires medical evidence, and most substance abuse related accommodation includes the employee receiving some form of treatment.

What to do?

Employers may be best to recognize that occasionally an employee may suffer the ill-effects of a hangover and will therefore be an unproductive and distracting influence at workplace (not to mention a safety risk).

HR might be best off re-wording any out-dated polices: if employees are too hungover to work productively, they should take a sick day and not come to work – but  they should also be prepared to provide a medical certificate if asked.

Any employers who have employees working in safety sensitive areas, or around hazardous materials, should consider introducing a policy which classes drinking in a set period of time preceding work as serious misconduct.

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