The Ministry of Manpower (MOM)said it expects all employers to excuse their employees from work if they are on sick or hospitalisation leave, in accordance with doctors' instructions.
This was in response to a report by The New Paper on Saturday over the way Singapore Airlines (SIA) views employees who use their medical certificates (MCs).
Last week, SIA stewardess Vanessa Yeap, 38, was found dead in a San Francisco hotel room. She was reportedly ill two days before the incident.
A Facebook user, Mr Philip Lim, then claimed SIA crew would avoid taking sick leave as it would affect their chances of a promotion. He also claimed SIA rewards its flight crew if they maintain an MC-free year. The airlines refuted his claims.
TNP quoted two SIA stewardesses who agreed with Mr Lim's post and felt the company's MC practice should be reviewed. They said cabin crew members were afraid to take medical leave as it might affect their promotion and contract renewal.
Following the report, 10 readers, most of whom claimed in their e-mails to be current or former SIA employees, contacted TNP. Some agreed with Mr Lim's comments while others shared unpleasant experiences taking MCs while with SIA.
In response, MOM yesterday issued a statement saying it expects all employers to excuse their employees from work if they have an MC.
Its spokesman said this would allow employees who are ill to obtain medical care and recover and can prevent further transmission of contagious illnesses at the workplace.
The spokesman added: "Paid sick and hospitalisation leave is a basic protection under the Employment Act and is also a core benefit in collective agreements... employers should avoid penalising an employee solely based on his consumption of sick leave."
The ministry added that employers should appraise their employees fairly by taking into consideration "ability, performance and contributions".
The ministry urged employers to clearly communicate their employment terms to employees to avoid misunderstanding.
Employees who feel penalised for taking sick leave can approach the ministry for help.
Under the law, employees with six or more months of service get a minimum of 14 and 60 days of paid sick and hospitalisation leave, respectively.
When contacted to respond to MOM's statement, SIA replied with the same statement it had sent to TNP on Friday.
The spokesman said: "Crew members who are given medical leave are encouraged to rest and recuperate at home. Operating with an MC is a disciplinary lapse...
"As with all other businesses, employee productivity and attendance at work are important for a successful airline operation.
"Although crew attendance is a component in the performance management process, we would like to emphasise that crew performance is measured across many other factors."
HR experts: Health incentives better than penalties
Subsidised gym memberships, free fruit days or shopping vouchers - these are how some companies are rewarding their employees to keep them healthy.
Healthy employees mean a healthy bottom line for employers, said Ms Linda Teo, country manager of recruitment firm ManpowerGroup Singapore.
"These initiatives have the same goal of equipping employees with the knowledge and skills to take ownership of their individual health," she told The New Paper.
"These incentives tend to be popular with healthy employees, mainly because it is easily achievable."
Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan said some companies have strict policies because of the nature of their business.
He said: "There is a need to instil a certain level of discipline, including health, personal hygiene and behaviour for operational reasons. It could be to maintain high customer service, and to ensure that employees are in top condition."
But misunderstandings may arise if the reason for the health-linked rewards is not communicated clearly to employees, both experts said.
The issue of sick leave arose after TNP reported on the grievances of some Singapore Airlines (SIA) crew members following the death of an air stewardess, who was said to be unwell two days before her passing.
At least 15 people, most of them SIA employees, later claimed they were discouraged from taking medical certificates (MC) for common ailments as it could affect their promotion prospects.
The Manpower Ministry then stepped in to say that all employees are entitled to medical leave.
On Wednesday, SIA assured its staff in a circular that the MC component makes up only 4 to 6 per cent of the total score in promotion reviews.
SIA also said it tracks those who take many days of sick leave to ensure they are all right and to ensure there is no abuse of MCs.
Ms Teo said the weightage on an employee's medical leave record at performance appraisal usually constitutes a very small percentage, and it serves as brownie points for those who stay healthy.
She added: "It is the employers' responsibility to emphasise this point to their employees, and that any health-related reward scheme is an incentive and not a penalty."
Mr Tan said workers who are sick should not report for work as they could infect their colleagues or affect operations.
"It is more responsible for individuals to ensure they are fit enough to work, rather than force themselves to work because they are afraid to lose their incentives," he said.
Practice of punishing employees for taking MCs can backfire
Employers should not use incentives to encourage employees from taking medical leave, or penalise them when they do.
The New Paper spoke to two human resource (HR) consultants who are against such a system.
Miss Annie Yap said she has never seen a company categorise medical certificates (MC) and deduct points based on the number of MCs taken.
Referring to Singapore Airlines' MC system, the managing director of AYP Group, a human resource consultancy and recruitment firm, said: "How can we classify MCs into casual and non-casual? How are we to know that a common flu will not lead to severe consequences? We are not in a position to judge because we are not doctors.
"If employees are not happy, their service quality may drop. So the whole plan may backfire against the company."
An accountant, who wanted to be known only as Madam Ho, said: "People should rest at home and not be afraid to take MCs. If the virus spreads and more people fall sick, the firm's productivity goes down."
She has seen auditors coming to work sick and feeling demoralised and moody.
Mr Max Loh, Ernst & Young's Asean and Singapore managing partner, said employees have the option to take medical leave with or without MCs, if they are unfit for work.
He said: "We focus on creating a flexible working environment that is based on trust, collaboration and outcomes (and not presenteeism)."
PwC Singapore said its employees are not assessed by the number of MCs they take.
It said: "The nature of our business is such that it would not make sense to place importance on physical presence in the office; many of our people are constantly on the go or working at clients' premises, and we have adopted 'flex' working arrangements for several years now."
HR expert Paul Heng, founder of NeXT Career Consulting Group, said employees should not be rewarded or penalised based on their medical leave.
He said: "We are bound to fall sick at times. Employers should respect the doctor's opinion that the person is not fit for work."