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!
I’ve always had sick days interchangeable with vacation days. Historically I’ve been just as reticent as you to use them. Then I realized getting the rest of the office sick hurts the company too. These days I either take the day or at least work from home.
Good for you! It’s crazy that it can take a while to figure that out (and this goes for employers too)! Glad you are staying home. I sometimes find telework—or at least checking email—a compromise that I can live with, too. Thanks for the comment!
I do find myself hesitant to take sick days, but it is largely because of the way our system is structured as it limits the amount of times we can call in sick much more stringently than the number of days total we can have off sick. I am typically sick for one day (migraine, stomach bug, etc.) and back to normal the next so I really get hit hard by these rules.
Now that we’re in the final quarter, I am less worried about being sick too many times and will gladly take a day off if I need it. I do agree that this culture of going in to work even when sick is no good for us mentally or physically!
That sounds like a complicated system you have to work within but I am glad that at least for the next few months you will be able to take leave when you need it. I wish we had a better way of looking at productivity then as a one hour of sick leave=one lost hour of work. When I go in sick, my employer is already losing out because I am less productive. This is probably true for most people. Thanks for the comment (and I wish you good health this fall :))!
At a previous job I never took sick leave, always worked form home instead – the nature of my job meant no one else could easily cover for me! But I could work remotely.
At my current job I have definitely taken advantage of the sick leave, I’ve been sick quite alot this year (possibly due to crappy pregnant immune system) as well as worked from home quite a lot and I’m so grateful for that flexibility. Generally I try to save sick leave for days when I have body aches/fever/chill, like REALLY sick! We get a generous 10 days instead of 5 (5 is the legal requirement and the standard) but I still don’t want to waste them, especially thinking ahead to when kid will be in day care and getting all the bugs…
Glad to hear you are willing to take your days (although I’m sorry you’ve been sick–I’ve heard pregnancy does increase susceptibility to viral infections so be careful!). I’m sure once the little one gets here you will have an immune system to envy! I’ve never been to New Zealand but that is interesting that the law requires employers offer at least 5 days of paid leave there. While not a lot it is a start. Thanks for commenting!
I still feel guilty about calling in sick because my first “real” job was brutal about it. The managers reprimanded people for calling in sick all the time, so instead people would show up and make everyone else sick instead. To me, it makes no sense infecting your whole staff instead of having to cover for one person for a few days. Thankfully in Ontario, where I live, they passed a bill that allows employees up to 10 personal emergency days per year (I believe only 2 days are paid, the rest would be unpaid) so that employers can’t do this sort of thing anymore – although I’m sure it will!
That’s great about the new law but I’m sure you’re right that employers may still try to make people feel guilty (even though it’s in their best interest that sick people stay home). Thanks for the comment!
I am lucky enough to have had relatively good health over the almost 11 years working for a company with a very generous sick leave policy. I have saved up 1,000 hours, and will be paid for any hours accumulated over 1,024. This concept is exciting, and also nerve wracking. Now I will be even more hesitant to take sick time because it will mean using the time AND giving up extra income for retirement and travel. A lucky problem to have, but still, a cause of anxiety.
That would make me anxious too! Maybe remind yourself that your health (and the health of your co-workers) has value too so taking sick leave isn’t wasting money but gaining health? Like you said, it’s not a bad problem to have but it does complicate matters. Good luck!