I managed to get out over a dozen high priority emails one day I was working from home. While only a fraction of what I would normally churn out, the concerning part was that I had no memory of sending them. I was delirious with a fever at my first full-time job during a busy period.
Why didn’t I just call in sick and set an OOO email? The reasonable part of my brain doesn’t have an explanation. But coming up in the era of the Girlboss and a ‘lucky to be here’ culture, sick day guilt is tough to shake. And according to a new study, it’s only gotten worse since the pandemic forced many of us into remote work.
Conducted by OnePoll, the survey found that 55% of people are required to provide their managers with a specific reason for calling in sick. Of this group, two in three reported feeling like their bosses never believe their reason.
As a result, respondents admitted to going to work while sick an average of three times within the last year. Nearly three in five even confessed to pushing themselves to clock in if their symptoms haven’t rendered them completely bed-ridden.
So, is the paranoia valid? Should we really be fretting the call or email, believing we’re losing out on opportunities or being judged? Well, it's complicated.
Presenteeism is rife in modern workplaces
For a lot of us, work can become a pillar of our identity — and that's not necessarily a bad thing if you genuinely enjoy that. But the ‘you are what you do’ mentality can reinforce the idea that overworking is the norm. And we get confused with what it means to 'show up' versus actually being good at the work we do. It's especially bad with sick days and time off, where the pressure (both internal and external) to be constantly hustling leaves us feeling like time off can hinder our career progression, or be perceived as poor work ethic. Even worse, we can convince ourselves that we should be rewarded or praised for working when we're unwell.
And unfortunately, this is not a completely irrational theory, either, with the realities of 'presenteeism' having a real-life impact on employee/employer relationships.
Presenteeism refers to the act of working through sickness as a performative measure, despite having reduced capabilities. As Leigh Thompson, professor of management and organisations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business told BBC, there are two key psychological phenomena that fuel presenteeism. The ‘mere-exposure effect’ explains how we naturally grow closer to people we see more, and the 'halo effect' is where we tend to conflate someone's positive qualities with their actual character. And, before you know it, people are getting raises or promotions simply because they are perceived to be more deserving.
In the past, physical capability was the one and only measure for being able to work, and it’s taken decades for workplaces to recognise the value of mental health days. Communicating the need for time off when can exacerbate the stress of feeling unwell, whether it's mental or physical, ongoing or temporary. And it's only gotten more complicated in the last year.
With working from home during the pandemic, the pressure of maintaining visibility and presenteeism doesn’t really go away. Sure, you could choose to continue working when experiencing minor symptoms where you would have otherwise opted not to go into the office (particularly with everyone on alert for COVID-19), but with so much stress put on businesses to keep kicking, the weight of proving yourself as essential to the business has been palpable. So many of us have been under immense pressure to keep our respective businesses afloat. Not only that, but redundancies have soared in the last year, and taking days off can cause workers to feel like they’re more disposable.
What do the managers think?
To gather some insight from the other side, we did a callout for people in senior management roles to tell us about their experiences.
Naturally, it's complicated on both sides because of course there will always be employees who chuck sickies because they can. Some managers shared the red flags that suggest an employee's sick day request isn't genuine, but most didn't want their employees to ever feel bad for calling in sick, as long as there is adequate communication — and all seemed to agree that the intimate details of your illness are not necessary.
But while many readers will think that diplomacy is easier to preach than practise, the common thread was the importance of sick days on a workplace's overall culture.
One respondent urged managers to foster an environment of respect and mutual trust. "If you are doubting whether someone in your team is sick, then there is something inherently wrong in the culture of your team and your perspective as a manager," they wrote, informed by the experience of being on the other side.
"It's the worst feeling like you can't be trusted at work — I've had experiences like this with past managers and it's incredibly demotivating. If you're sick you're sick, you shouldn't be expected to answer emails, and a supportive team will respect that."
And it’s no different for freelance workers.
"I don’t get paid if I don’t work, so yes, I always have sick day guilt," says Hannah, 30, who works as a design and branding consultant.
"But even when I worked as part of a business in an office, there was a toxic culture of being made to feel like you were missing out when you called in sick, so I always made sure to keep checking emails and be present in some way. I'll always have those residual feelings from years in an office but it's just about unlearning all of that hustle culture nonsense and investing in yourself," she says.
So what's the best way to handle a sick day?
The resounding response from managers is that no one needs to be working when incapacitated, and sick days are there to be used. Most just appreciate being provided as much notice as you can, whether that's over the phone or email, and being realistic about how long it will take you to recoup so that you can come back to the office restored, rather than at 60%.
While it’s nice to hear that the guilt around sick days is likely unwarranted, and just the product of some good old capitalist existentialism, we know it can be tough to completely rid yourself of these feelings altogether — trust us, we've been there. Luckily, workplaces are slowly but surely becoming more open places, and we have access to more resources than ever before.