What's With Our Collective Fear of Taking Sick Days?

What's With Our Collective Fear of Taking Sick Days?
by Kit Warchol
October 07, 2016
In a culture that values work, how often do we fail to tell ourselves we need to rest and heal?
A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton, arguably the most important career woman in America right now, nearly collapsed at a 9/11 memorial ceremony. This moment of unexpected illness set off a ripple effect. Over the next few hours, Republicans and Democrats alike took to Twitter to question Clinton's lack of transparency and whether she was healthy enough to serve as president, good old Bill came to the rescue by filling in for his wife at fundraising events, and, of course, Clinton's camp was forced to acknowledge her medical condition publicly: pneumonia.  

Like many of us, Clinton's sickness started with a cough—a nasty one that led her to her doctor's office that Friday, just before Sunday's massive memorial. We'd learn later that her doctor "prescribed antibiotics and suggested that Clinton cut back her schedule and get five days of rest." But, like many of us have done before, the presidential nominee refused to take a sick day(s): "The election was just 60 days away, and Clinton wanted to grind it out — and that, to her, meant not telling many of her aides, let alone the public, about her illness." (Washington Post). And so Clinton decided to tough it out—and pushed herself to physical collapse.

when most of us have sick leave, why do wE go INTO WORK anyway? 

As I sat down to write this article in our coworking space, I heard someone yell at their coworker: "Wait, you're sick? Why are you here? I don't want to get sick." Then, our designer, Sarah told me about the time she had pneumonia in college when it was bad enough that she ultimately cracked her rib from coughing. During her illness, she was a full-time student at Northwestern and working for the campus shuttle service from 6PM-3AM nightly. She'd assumed a cough wasn't enough to skip class or her shifts. And this morning, my boyfriend brought some company with him to his office: a shockingly sore throat ("Hot food is sort of painful, as are solids. Might just stick to yogurt for dinner") that I'm desperately hoping I don't catch. But honestly? I probably will and even more honestly? I'll probably drag myself into work at least one day sooner than I should.

So it's our collective tendency to push through our sick days, but why? Let's consider a few reasons:

Maybe We Don't Want to Use Our PTO

U.S. companies are notorious for not giving much time off and that includes sick days. But that also includes vacation and personal days in general. This is a key point. The reality is that many of us value our sick days as much our vacation hours, in part because we're not sure when or why we'll need to use them. What if we've used them up over some paltry head colds and then something much bigger hits us? God forbid we come down with strep throat two weeks before the holidays, forcing us to cut into our valuable PTO. 

But We're Also Psychologically Programmed to Avoid Time Off

But the problem, it seems, goes much deeper than that. Most of America is overwhelmed. In fact, according to a recent study: "Nearly three-quarters of workers say they are stressed at work, with one-in-four reporting they are either “very” or “extremely” stressed." But "while 96% of respondents recognize the importance of using time off, there are still 41% of Americans who do not plan on using all of their vacation days." 

It would seem that psychologically-speaking, most of us fall somewhere between "martyr" and "freak." We don't want to take our time off for a variety of reasons. Even when we have those days, we intentionally opt out of them. Here are some scary numbers the study also lists: 
  • 37% of those surveyed felt it was not “easy” to take the time off they have earned
  • 40% of that group said they skip taking vacation time off because they fear the return to "a mountain of work"
  • 28% of employees don't use their time off because they believe it shows greater dedication
  • And last but certainly not least, 67% of employees are hearing nothing, negative, or mixed messages from their employers about using vacation time
Makes you shudder, right? These issues are rampant in all age groups and common among men and women, but actually, the tendency to work through illness is a bit higher in millennials. And so we're stressed and overtaxed, which makes us feel like we can't take time off. But stress, we know, makes everyone more prone to illness.

Worse, Though, Many Of Us Just Can't Afford Sick Leave

Allegedly we're allowed to take up to 12 weeks off for medical leave without fear of losing our jobs, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act signed by Bill Clinton (ironic much?) way back in 1993. But here's the thing: that's not paid time off. Leaving aside the unspoken, yet high, possibility that you'll return to work to find your position "restructured" after that long time off the job, can you afford weeks of no pay? I certainly can't. I couldn't even afford a few days. And when you consider that a flu bug can knock you out for 10 days—well, that pretty much explains why most of America doesn't consider it.
We've been trained to consider most colds, coughs, and stomach bugs as a tougher day at the office—no worse than a hangover and equally unacceptable to call out over.

Are We Incapable of Gauging Illness?

When you hear that Hillary Clinton was just running around at all hours with, oh, pneumonia, I doubt your first reaction is: "Oh, cool."  I mean, could you run a campaign feeling that low? Certainly, there's unparalleled strength in there somewhere—after all, there's a reason Hillz is running for president and you and I aren't—but when did it become optional to take a sick day when your lungs are filled with fluid? This brings us to surprisingly complex question in our society: what qualifies as illness? 

Should you stay home with a cold? How bad does the cold have to be to stay home? OK, what if you have a fever? You know you should stay home then, but for how long after your fever subsides should you avoid going in?

In a culture that values long hours and martyrdom, there's not much room for sickness. One friend put it this way: "When other people have real illnesses, I don't want to be perceived as the person in the office who skips out anytime I have a stuffy nose."

What is a "real" illness, then? Something permanent? Terminal? Should we only take sick leave when we are literally unable to get out of bed? We've been trained to consider most colds, coughs, and stomach bugs as a tougher day at the office—no worse than a hangover and equally unacceptable to call out over.

...Unless it's a coworker who's sick. Then we're upset. Why? Because they might get us sick, and we simply don't have time. 

Is there any way to fix it? 

It starts with setting standards, which of course, is much harder than it sounds. In order for us to make taking time off the norm, we have to actually take time off. Doing so means clearing the air.  

Step 1: Ask Your Team to Come Up with a Standard 

You should feel confident staying home when you just feel awful, but per the earlier points in this article: we all know you don't. Approach your boss or coworkers and suggest that you discuss the "Absolutely Do Nots" of illness. I'm not saying that if you don't fall into these categories, you can't take the day off, but agree on some elements that are absolute no-gos. These can include things like: 
  • Fevers
  • Excessive Sneezing and Coughing
  • Flu symptoms for up to x hours (as advised by doc) 
  • Asking coworkers to email if they're feeling ill to let people know they should communicate via email/IM rather than stopping by a potentially germ-ridden cubicle. 
  • Even requiring that for flus and fevers, coworkers should get doctor approval before coming back in. 
Another key is to set a "TMI" standard. If everyone feels obligated to share exactly what sort of illness they have, you're caught in that vicious comparison game of "real" versus "unreal" sickness. Consider speaking to your manager about creating a policy that team members just send an email saying they're "out sick today." Period, full stop. No "I've got a fever of 102." No "I was in the bathroom all night" (please no). If you need to, you can always email with your supervisor privately about any details that will affect your work.

The key with all of this is that everyone on the team has to agree to abide by the standards. The second that someone "pushes through," the entire flu season truce is broken. 

Step 2: If Possible, Clear the Air About Working from Home. If Not, Isolate Yourself

Guaranteed: you're going to catch something where you'll definitely need to take a day off to rest and heal, and the next day you wake up feeling better—well, almost. It those half-ill days we're accustomed to compromising on, dragging ourselves into the office with some Nyquil in our laptop bag and a mild sniffle. Chances are you're still contagious. You're definitely still healing.
Set a "TMI" standard. No "I've got a fever of 102." No "I was in the bathroom all night" (please no). Make a policy that team members will just send an email saying they're "out sick today." Period, full stop.
If work allows, these days are the perfect ones to spend working from home. That's if you can dedicate yourself to working for the day. I remember one flu bug well where I hit Day 4 and was desperate to do something, anything besides watch 30 Rock. This is the ideal day to email coworkers and let them know you'll be working from bed or the couch. If while attempting this, you find you still don't have the energy, take another sick day. Or sign off early and let your boss know you'll take a half sick day in order to nap. Communication is key.

If work from home is just not possible for your job, and you're really feeling like you need to be back at work, don't risk infecting anyone. Hopefully, your work environment includes a private cubicle or at least a private desk. Keep to yourself. Make sure to let people know you're almost better but don't want to get anyone sick. Offer to communicate via Skype or Google Hangouts rather than having people drop by to chat. And refrain from your usual team lunches or water cooler hangs.  

Step 3: When Taking a Sick Day, Communicate As Much As Possible 

No, I don't mean throughout the day. If you're sick, you're sick. Sign off. Curl up. Take some medicine that will knock you out, and sleep as much as you can. But before you do that, email your team. If anyone is waiting on you for work, make sure to specifically explain how/when you'll get that work done—whether that means you'll work on it from home or you'll get started on it as soon as you're back. If you need someone to cover for you in any capacity, email them directly. You don't want to force them to scan through all the items you're working on just to know whether or not you need their help.

Like we mentioned above, if you do decide to work from home or take a half-day, make sure to communicate when you'll be offline. Depending on your work culture, this email may just go to your boss or maybe it goes to your whole team. Regardless, it helps for them to know you're going to turn off your email and phone to try to fit a restorative nap in. 

Step 4: Actually Use Your Sick Leave

Those hours do nothing for you sitting there. If there's ever a day when you're feeling rundown physically (or hell even mentally), it's better to rest and recuperate now than deal with the fallout of a much bigger illness later. 

Try to stop stressing about "running out" of time off. After all, most of us don't take all our days—and many of us work at places where, unlike vacation, sick days don't roll over. Migraines count. Sore throats. Exhaustion after an incredibly anxiety-inducing week counts. Burnout counts. I know that's not exactly the standard approach in traditional work environments, but maybe it should be.
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What are some techniques you use to take sick leave when you need it?