Working remotely has become the way of life for millions of employees around the world. The coronavirus has given us reason to rethink everything, especially the way we work. Rolling out of bed, attending Zoom meetings in pajamas, working past 5pm because the commute from your office to your kitchen takes you less than a minute. All of this new way of being brings up the need for us to revisit a conversation about time off. As employees, it is up to us to prioritize our time and needs. When it comes to sick and vacation days, we must normalize the fact that we must all receive and use those days as such.
I’ve struggled my entire professional career with taking a sick day, with disconnecting from work to let my body and mind rest. Yet, I’ve consistently encouraged my staff to take the time they need or deserve — to take their vacation days and not feel obligated to check their work email. I knew they needed time away, and that taking that time would make them better at their jobs. I also wanted my staff to feel like their personal lives mattered as much as their professional lives.
Because of the pressure I put on myself to stay on top of my work, I’ve rarely called in sick. But the pandemic taught me to prioritize myself and my needs, just like I would prioritize my work — in order of most importance, putting myself as number one.
The pandemic has also taught us that taking a mental health day is important, and while most of us do not have a bank of “mental health days” detailed in our employee handbook, we do have vacation, personal, and sick days to use. Our mental health is equally as important as our physical health; it’s all the same, isn’t it? If our body is physically unwell, our minds will be off-kilter too — and if our minds aren’t clear and ready to jump into work, we will also show physical signs. It all goes hand in hand.
In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that 157 million people made up the American workforce. In 2014, California became only the second state in the United States to require paid sick leave for employees. This is something that needs to change too; sometimes, those struggling financially have no choice but to come in to work ill if staying at home means missing a day’s pay. According to the Department of Labor, there is no federal mandate for employers to have a paid sick leave. I hope employers take the opportunity and lessons learned from living through a pandemic to understand that paid sick days should not have to be something employees must fight for. But that’s for another article.
So why is it exactly that we have such a hard time with using our time off? Is it because traditionally, we feel a pressure to check in with our bosses? Or is it because we feel like we need to lay all our shit bare to our boss in order to prove we are actually sick? Why does any of that matter? Yes, it’s important to be honest and say that you’re sick when you’re sick and when you’re going out of town use a vacation or personal day — your call. But time off is built into every job, and if we don’t use it, we are only missing out on the benefits available to us.
When we are sick, we need to take a sick day. We’d keep our kids home from school if they were sick, right? Why do we short-change ourselves?
For now, all we can do is normalize using our time off. If your employer makes you feel guilty for taking a sick day or pressures you to check on a work project or check your never ending email — it’s up to you to put your foot down. It’s up to you to educate your boss, or perhaps even human resources, that your sick day means you are 100% off the clock and taking care of yourself, whether physically or mentally. Sure, you may have fear about being the one to lead the way in this discussion, but if you don’t, who will?
Is this the work culture we want to perpetuate — the kind in which we just let our allotted days off go unused? It’s up to us to take and use our sick days and vacation days for what they are meant for. Remember to put yourself first; your employer will prioritize their needs, and you should too.