Sitting in the meeting with your head tilted in just the right way, trying to delay blowing your nose again. Abruptly leaving for the restroom to try and keep your impending coughing fit as private as possible. Many of us have come to view working while sick as a necessity, or even a badge of honor. We limp through the work day with a box of tissues and a pack of DayQuill to demonstrate our commitment and grit, and maybe even roll our eyes when a co-worker takes time off to rest.
Modern workplace culture often subjugates personal health and wellness to career responsibilities and ambitions. We forgo sleep, eat on the go or hunched over our desks, and spend the weekend on the couch instead of outside. Taking advantage of paid sick time to rest and recuperate is critically important to fostering a culture of wellbeing. By failing to take sick time, we are telling our coworkers and our companies that we don’t value our own health.
Taking the Plunge: Sick Days for the Rest of Us
But how can people who aren’t celebrities or CEOs balance work and wellbeing? How can people with serious concerns about falling behind in their careers risk taking an entire, unplanned day off work? As a junior associate at a global law firm, I fully appreciate how difficult it can be to take a sick day. So-called “Big Law” jobs like mine are notoriously demanding, with a well-earned reputation for long hours, high stakes, and tight deadlines. Taking care of our health in the face of life’s pressures can feel like an act of rebellion. During a recent bout of flu, I decided take the plunge and give myself a full day to recuperate.
While my husband took the kids to daycare, I felt a slight sense of dread as I lay in bed emailing my supervisors. To the best of my cloudy-headed abilities, I crafted an email explaining that I was too sick to work, and that one of my projects would need to be pushed back a day. I was careful to assure my colleagues that I was available by cell if needed, and that if absolutely necessary I could still try to complete the lagging project. To my pleasant surprise, the only response I received said, “Don’t worry about it, feel better!” While some part of me doubted the sincerity of those words, I decided to take them at face value. I closed my laptop and spent the day re-watching two seasons of Californication.
How Sick Days Help Us Get Ahead
The next day I awoke feeling 90% better and went to work with a renewed appreciation for my colleagues and my firm. My sick day experience showed me a few things about taking recuperation time:
(1) If you tell people you’re too sick to work, they are likely to believe you. If you decide to power through and tell your co-workers you can manage, they’re likely to believe that too. Playing the martyr is unlikely to earn you the credit you’re hoping for.
(2) It’s better to take time to recover than to work while sick and turn in sub-par work. Taking time to recuperate allows your body to recover faster and mitigates the risk of an egregious, Robitussin-fueled mistake.
(3) Sick days reduce the risk of burnout, which helps ensure the longevity of our success. Our careers may span forty years or more — this is a marathon, not a sprint. By taking care of our health when flu season strikes we’re setting ourselves up for continuous, sustainable success.
When a Sick Day is Not an Option
While recuperation days are important to our health and sanity, some days we can’t responsibly unplug. In these situations it’s important to differentiate things that we really need to do immediately from things we are merely reticent to delay or delegate. If you’re debating a sick day, think about what negative outcomes might result if you miss one day of work, and try to limit your answer to concrete consequences. For an attorney a concrete consequence might be missing a court deadline. If someone could cover for you or you could catch up tomorrow there is no concrete consequence of missing work. Fear of marginal damage to your reputation also doesn’t count. If you determine that you absolutely must work while sick, limit that work to the minimum amount necessary to avoid concrete consequences.
Just as we need to set firm boundaries to protect our sleep, we need to establish a precedent of allowing our bodies time to heal from illness. A cultural shift requires individuals to assert and stand up for a right to recuperation time, and to respect the rights of our coworkers to take sick days when needed. Grab some throat drops, fire up that Netflix queue, and join the revolution.
Originally published at medium.com