I’ve been thinking a lot about sick leave lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about taking sick leave.
It sounds ridiculous to say it out loud but I’ve never been great about taking sick leave, even when I knew I should do so. Other people tell me they aren’t feeling well, and I enthusiastically recommend they take some time off of work. But for myself, the energy I devote to debating if I’m “sick enough”to take it is mind-boggling.
Why so much angst? Well…it’s complicated.
A “Good” Problem to Have
Before I continue, I want to acknowledge how lucky I am to even have access to paid sick leave (how messed up is it that I count myself “lucky” for not having to choose between getting paid and taking care of myself and/or not infecting my co-workers?). This is because in the United States, there is no law requiring employers offer paid sick leave and as a result, many do not.
According to this survey by Kaiser Family Foundation, only 67% of companies with fewer than 200 employees offer paid sick leave to full-time employees and only 26% offer it to part-time employees. Companies with more than 200 employees do better: 94% offer it to their full-time employees and 56% to their part-time employees. This translates into 87% of full-time employees and 50% of part-time employees having access to this benefit.
Having access doesn’t necessarily mean taking advantage of that access, however (and I should know, given that I have accumulated over 700 hours of unused sick leave in my sixteen years with my current employer).
Why I Struggle to Take Sick Leave
In my case, I think my biggest stumbling block to taking sick leave is guilt: am I truly sick enough not to show up?
I was Never a Ferris Bueller . . .
When I was a kid, I liked to stay home from school not because I hated school, or was bullied, or didn’t do well. I liked it because I enjoyed the calm of being in the house by myself and having complete control over my space and my schedule (this is also probably why early-ish retirement excites me!).
I would watch The Price is Right and then make myself a bowl of soup for lunch and a batch of no-bake cookies for dessert (yes, an entire batch).
The trouble was that I was never a Ferris Bueller. I needed to have a legitimate reason for not going in: a high fever, a terrible stomach illness, being contagious, being immobile, etc. A beautiful day was never going to be enough.
Why? I think there are multiple reasons but undoubtedly the biggest one was I lived with a mother who had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that would eventually kill her who still went in to work. If she managed to do so, in my mind—and in her mind too—I better have a very good reason for not going to school.
So, in addition to watching The Price is Right and eating unhealthy quantities of unhealthy food, I would fret the entire day. Am I really sick? Could I have gone in? If I am enjoying my time away from school, I probably wasn’t that sick, right?
But Do I Have to Be a Cameron Frye?
As an adult, this second guessing of my desire to call in sick hasn’t changed. And I don’t even necessarily mean taking a mental health day (although that is certainly part of it).
Before COVID, I would go into work and have people actively avoiding me because I was sneezing and coughing so much. I knew I wasn’t contagious but I was definitely grossing people out.
Would my work world have stopped turning if I had just stayed home with a box of tissues and Netflix? Of course it wouldn’t have! But, I reasoned, I could make it through the day and so I should make it through the day.
I am trying to be better at taking my own advice, however.
Recently, I was struggling with a viral something that left me achy and feeling feverish (although I didn’t actually have a fever) and which culminated in a migraine. In the past, I’m not sure I would have even considered calling in sick since I wasn’t contagious and could still get up, get dressed, form complete sentences, etc.
But I did this time. For two days, I sat on my couch with my kitties, drank plenty of fluids, and re-watched some of my favorite Masterpiece Mysteries on Netflix. I’m not going to lie: I did feel some guilt. But I also felt a little bit kick-ass for putting my health first.
Lessons From a Millennial
Not too long ago, a 26-year-old tweeted the positive response she got from her company’s CEO after he read her out-of-office reply that admitted she was taking a few days off to focus on her mental health.
I found the story remarkable for two reasons. First, of course, is because of her boss’s response. Him thanking her for being up front about her needs and helping to “cut through the stigma” shouldn’t be as tweet-worthy as it was but nevertheless, his attitude seems rare for most workplaces.
But it was also remarkable for her willingness to put herself first and to be upfront about doing so. She didn’t try to claim her need to be away from work was due to any physical ailment or even promise not to feel any joy while she was away (this last, of course, is a reflection of my crazy hang-ups as described above).
In this instance, the employee had been struggling with severe depression (so of course taking a sick day was appropriate!) but from this story I think there is a more universal lesson to be learned: sick days are for healing.
I will never see them as interchangeable with vacation days but I also need to be more willing to use them to recover from all illnesses, whether they be physical, mental, or even spiritual.
Do You Struggle to Call in Sick?
What do you think? Are you wracked with guilt too or have you embraced your inner Ferris? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!