Have you ever noticed a colleague, or maybe even an employee of yours, proudly waving the flag of having ‘never taken a sick day’?
Showing up (in person or virtually) when we are unwell is called ‘sickness presenteeism’, and can actually impact workers, companies, and the economy even more than absenteeism, according to Wired.
Taking the UK as an example, in 2019 (before numbers were skewed by furlough and quarantine) ‘workers surveyed by CIPD averaged only six sick days per year’, Wired reported. This can be due to work pressure, deadlines, or a fear of being thought of as ‘slacking’.
Highspeedtraining estimated that ‘On average, presenteeism costs businesses £605 per person each year’ and ‘27 days of productive time per employee are lost each year due to presenteeism’, in the UK.
The problem has been exacerbated by remote working, which has eliminated the risk of infecting co-workers and made it easier to work from your sick bed.
While it can be easy to see this as a badge of honour, or even become fixated on maintaining a ‘winning streak’, it’s not sustainable.
Sick days are there for a reason and true consistency means being self-aware, and resting when we need to.
To understand how taking a sick day can actually benefit you and your organisation, let’s explore some drawbacks of working through illness.
It sets an unrealistic precedent.
Everyone gets sick from time to time.
If you force yourself to show up each time you have a cold, you may feel an expectation to do so when you are more seriously unwell, too.
Drawing the line of how sick is ‘sick enough’ is problematic. Every employee is unique and must respond intuitively to their own needs.
Maintaining and even advertising a 100% record can also have an effect on your colleagues. It may set an unattainable standard that others are expected to meet.
Bias in favour of employees who don’t take sick days can create inequity in your team, with disadvantages to those who suffer from underlying, ongoing or chronic conditions.
If you are an employer, simply make sure that your policy is clear, that everyone sticks to it, and that employees know they can take a day off to recuperate without negative repercussions.
You make mistakes.
If you’re not feeling 100%, you’re not going to perform at your best.
With symptoms like grogginess and even forgetfulness, which we can often be unaware of, you’re likely to action tasks poorly or incorrectly. This means that you, or someone else, have to come back and fix those mistakes later.
In this way, by working when you are sick in order to ‘stay on top of things’, you are actually doing the opposite and creating work.
Employers can mitigate this by ensuring that when employees are on sick leave, their workload is managed by the wider team. This way, they feel less pressure and are not overwhelmed when they return.
It may impact your job fulfilment.
It’s important to have a positive experience when we come to work, and we are each responsible for maintaining that. Without it, we can become dissatisfied with our roles. In extreme cases, this could even set you on the road to burnout.
By ‘powering through’ illness too frequently, we can reframe work as a chore rather than a fulfilling outlet, leading to an unproductive, negative mindset.
Your recovery will be delayed.
We know, recovery can be frustrating and boring. You may find yourself obsessively thinking ‘I could be getting work done right now’. However, remember that if you don’t rest properly, it will only take longer to get back to your usual self.
By taking the time to listen to your body, you can then ensure that you’re back on form to be there for your team and deliver a high standard of work much sooner.
It's important to note that the ability to take a paid sick day is a privilege. For those who are self-employed or freelance, this may be a more complicated choice to make.
In these cases, the same principles still apply. Taking care of yourself has to come first, so you can get back to work in top condition.
We’d still recommend seeking support if you can, and being open with any clients, in order to adjust expectations where necessary.
To summarise, taking sick days can be frustrating for many reasons, but it’s in all our best interests. Organisations stand to benefit when employers create a culture that prioritizes proper recovery over non-stop hustle.
If you struggle to take the time you need when you're sick, or have a hard time, in general, unplugging from work, it may help to check out our free handbook on Mental Health in the Workplace, available to download now.