Toronto will allow employees to work from home after a short illness, if that’s all they can do

TORONTO — Starting next year, Toronto is making it easier for city workers to go back to the office even if they’re sick.

The new policy will mark an increase from 2017, when workers had to take 12 to 24 hours off to be allowed to return to work; they would return to an email inbox in the morning, but could not use their actual smartphones to work from home, or go online with work apps.

The policy change reflects growing opioid use in the city, which has seen an increase in opioid deaths, and believes it’s an effective way to contain the spread of infectious disease, said Doug Holyday, Toronto’s deputy mayor and council representative for Ward 30, which includes North York, York and Etobicoke.

“To deal with that problem, you’ve got to find a way to get your employees to work from home,” Holyday said.

In the last five years, London, London Health Sciences Centre, Kent Health District and St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver have allowed workers to return to work after a short absence, though the waiting period varies between two and five days. London and St. Paul’s are closely watching Toronto’s approach to making smartphones unavailable, and are eager to see how it works, Holyday said.

In 2017, London Hospital was one of the few large hospitals in Canada to allow smartphones in the workplace after a bacterial infection outbreak. But London Hospital said this week that it won’t be implementing the new policy. “A sustained shortage of physicians is resulting in the availability of healthy staff members working more hours and ill staff members working fewer hours,” the hospital wrote in a statement, noting that its officials were still in the early stages of evaluating the Toronto announcement.

City officials are urging employees who haven’t gotten enough rest to see their doctor after work, and recommend that people get rest.

But left unfixed are people who, when they get sick, want to go into work because they are still at their desks. Such workers are particularly at risk of contracting illnesses that require antibiotics, said Dr. Nasim Rizvi, an infectious disease physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Rizvi, along with Holyday, said this could lead to complacency among public health personnel who are up all night with workers they treat, or may delay reporting potential outbreaks to Ontario’s health ministry.

Many public health workers might also go into work sick themselves, and if there are symptoms for influenza or other communicable diseases, they may not think to alert their work colleagues, which would put them at greater risk for spreading the disease.

“It’s not a huge number, but there are isolated cases of what people [in Mount Sinai’s public health department] call ‘worker downers,’ ” said Dr. Jennifer Carr, Ontario’s public health minister, who said it’s in the public health agency’s best interest to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, but they are waiting to see how Toronto implements the policy.

Officials don’t know how many people might work from home, but the fewer people there are, the more likely a person will return to work and spread disease, Rizvi said.

Workers should monitor their symptoms, and stay home on symptoms such as extreme fatigue, C. difficile and respiratory syncytial virus infections. Others could be protected by staying away from larger institutions, and not returning to work until they are symptom-free.

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