Remote Employees — Do Not Forgo Your Sick Days

by Holly Garcia

Who remembers back when we all worked in an office? There are many things we don’t miss about office life. Like that awkward, forced small talk, the ungodly smell coming from the break room microwave, and sharing bathrooms with all of our coworkers.

But do you know what is the one thing I do miss? Sick time. It’s not that employers aren’t offering sick time to their employees, but since we’re already home, some might wonder, is there really any harm in checking email while you’re hacking up a lung? Or listening to a conference call while you’re navigating through a migraine?

In fact, according to Axios, 2 in 3 Americans aren’t likely to take sick time for sore throats or stuffy noses when working from home. Worse yet, 70% say they’ve worked while sick during the pandemic. So why do we do it? And what can happen when we do it too often?

Not taking time off when you’re sick can lead to extended illness and ultimately burnout, which is a lot harder to recover from. Think of your energy like a cell phone. When you only charge up to 75%, the battery dies faster, and it reduces your phone’s ability to get to a full 100% charge later on. Our emotional, mental, and physical health all work the same way.

Not Taking Sick Time Increases Presenteeism

This thing that many of us do isn’t exceptional work ethic, nor is it overcommitment. There actually is a technical term. It’s a phenomenon called presenteeism. You may not have heard the word, but it’s likely you’re familiar with the concept. We’ve all done it. Presenteeism is pushing through your day-to-day when you aren’t feeling 100%. Investopedia defines it as lost productivity occurring when employees are not fully functioning on the job because of an illness, injury, or other condition. Raise your hand if that is something you’ve ever done. (My hand is raised really high.)

So why do we do it? Why has it become the norm to put our work before our health? When did sick days become so taboo? Well, the answer is twofold. The first part has everything to do with our companies’ culture. Having a company culture that supports the needs of its employees on emotional, mental, and physical levels is crucial. And no, it doesn’t count to just put a statement on your internal website saying we support your holistic health and then not actually do that. If you want your employees to do the best job they can, stop expecting them to show up when they aren’t at 100%. Leave them alone when they tell you they are sick, and let them rest.

Secondly, society needs to move on from the mentality that remote work is the same as 24/7 work. Since many of us have made the switch to work-at-home, the expectations seem higher for many of us. With remote work came employers’ chance to skate around their employees taking time off for sick days.

Recently, I took a leave of absence from work for mental health and burnout-related issues. On top of that, the week prior, I had been out because one of my kids brought COVID home from school. I’m someone who avoids calling in sick, and definitely doesn’t take sick time even when I should. As I lay in bed with my head swimming in congestion and my body aching from head to toe, I thought about why I hadn’t taken some time off sooner.

And just like that, it felt like my manager was reading my mind, and messages started popping up on my phone related to work. I had to log back into my PC three times that first day off. I also was asked several times to jump on a phone call, which I absolutely did not because I was too sick, but the expectation was there. The worst part was, they knew. They knew any time I did anything with my throat, it felt like I was swallowing glass. They knew I had a sick child at home. The cherry on top of this disaster? If I hadn’t had any physical ailments and just emotional and mental health distress, they would have been relentless until I caved in and worked the full day!

Don’t Forget, Mental Health is Part of Overall Health

As much as people talk about their mental health in general these days, conversations around mental health in the workplace still have a long ways to go. Taking sick time for mental health is no different than taking time because you broke a bone. Mental health is health–full stop. So if you feel yourself edging toward burnout (whether physical, mental or both), don’t let yourself fall into the abyss. It’s not that you can’t come back from burnout, but it’s a helluva lot harder to do once you’ve overstepped that line.

At the end of the day, businesses still need to get the work done to stay afloat. We get that. But running your employees into the ground won’t result in increased productivity.And if your employees aren’t productive, the work doesn’t get done that you need to stay afloat and make money. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Ultimately you’ll lose them, and productivity suffers extensively as you recruit, hire, and train new employees. Not to mention you have to go through the entire interviewing, hiring, and training cycle all over again. Employers, don’t think less of your employees when they take sick time, even if they work remotely. Do not shame them, or ignore their desire for rest by slamming them with emails. And employees, don’t forget to take care of yourselves. If you aren’t well, no one wins. Because at the end of the day, your health matters more than any salary ever will.