Well-Being//

Too Busy at Work to Take a Sick Day? Here’s What to Do — and What Not to Do

Your productivity shouldn’t come at the expense of your recovery.

BUNDITINAY / Shutterstock
BUNDITINAY / Shutterstock

“I can’t get sick, I have too much to do.” If you’ve ever had that thought — or heard a friend share the sentiment — you know that navigating work when you’re under the weather can be a real conundrum. 

And the truth is, it’s not uncommon for employees to suffer through work when they aren’t feeling well. The World Economic Forum reports that “presenteeism,” or showing up at work despite being unwell, is on the rise. And when it comes to sick days, people simply aren’t taking them. Data from LinkedIn found that workers took an average of just 2.5 sick days in 2018.

Daniel Engber, in an op-ed for the The New York Times a few years ago, pondered what’s really causing people to show up for work in an unwell state: “Maybe we’re afraid of staying home because we’re so well-trained to stay at work,” he wrote. “If you’re not overworked — or won’t go into the office sick — you seem to be a slouch.”

Engber’s advice to overcome our real sickness — a.k.a. overwork? “Praise the ones who do their part to slow the rat race down… Take some extra time. Stay home. That’s how we can show that it’s O.K. to take it easy, and that a happy, healthy life needn’t be a source of shame.”

If you’re used to plowing through work on your sniffliest, achiest of days, heed this expert advice:

Don’t hide it

If you’re starting to come down with something and you’re worried about making your deadlines, be upfront with your manager so they have the opportunity to reprioritize what’s on your plate. 

“If managers know the situation, it’s much easier to manage workloads and deadlines,” says Michael C. Sturman, Ph.D., professor of human resource management at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. And if you’re feeling guilty about “letting your boss down,” remember that trying to power through an illness may cause you to “produce substandard work that has to be fixed anyway, and that does no one any good,” adds Sturman.

Set up boundaries from WFH

Sometimes you’re not feeling well enough to schlep to the office, but you’re not so sick that you can’t tend to a few big-ticket priorities by working from home. First, it’s important to be honest with yourself in assessing your situation: Are you WFH because you’re afraid to take downtime, even when you really need it? If you’re truly OK to work (albeit in oversized sweats from the comfort of your couch), be clear about your limits. For instance, you could email your boss in the morning say: “I’ll be taking the morning to rest, but I expect to be online again from noon to 3 p.m.”

Learn how to unplug

When taking a true sick day — a.k.a. no working, from anywhere — is in order, give yourself permission to unplug, advises Sturman. Appoint someone to cover for you at work (and be sure to return the favor in their absence). Then, “avoid checking emails and take the time to rest and get better, as that is the intent of taking a sick day,” says Sturman. Setting up an out-of-office message is important, as this reinforces that you’re taking dedicated time away from the demands of your day-to-day.

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