| Oct 28, 2021

Seriously, Use Your Sick Days.

Studies show American workers are afraid to use their paid time off. Here's why you should anyway.

Remember in elementary school when they started giving out arbitrary awards? Beyond the quarterly honor roll, teachers began rewarding students who never missed a day of school. I even graduated high school with someone who had never missed a single day throughout her entire educational career. Don’t get me wrong — that is worth a handshake. It takes perseverance, motivation, and a lot of discipline.

But, while it seemed harmless, this reward was, in hindsight, a bit unfair. It doesn’t take into account that some students:

  • Had ongoing illnesses;
  • Had responsibilities within their home that hindered attendance;
  • Came from a broken family unit or foster care, which interfered with their ability to stay within their school district;
  • Had a beloved pet die;
  • Had relatively normal functioning immune systems and got sick from time to time;
  • Needed to attend a very important Thursday concert their favorite band was playing two hours away.

Just me on that last one? All joking aside, taking a day is realistic, and should be expected — for reasons both serious and not. The unhealthy attitude that attendance is always mandatory, regardless of reason, has translated into a lot of our work lives.

Learning from experience.

At my first writing job, I subscribed to everything I saw my coworkers doing: we took work home, we worked long hours, we were never late, and we never took time off. And then it happened. My partner’s grandfather fell ill.

Cancer.

With the family a thousand miles away, we needed to fly home, spend time with his grandfather, say our goodbyes, and attend the funeral, all within one difficult month. We would fly north in two- or three-day spurts each weekend, returning just in time for work Monday because I couldn’t bear to ask for more time off than was “needed.”

Suddenly, a second family emergency coincided.

My mom had a freak scuba accident and was rushed to a hospital in the Caribbean with a collapsed lung. Shortly thereafter, she would be flown by Medevac to Miami, where I was living at the time.

We flew in from saying our final goodbyes to his grandfather and went straight to the recovery room upon landing. Swollen from surgeries, tubes coming from her chest and lungs, I’d never seen my mom like this.

We stayed until 2 am, drove 45 minutes home, and got up for work the next day at 7. After putting in my nine hours at work, I drove straight to the hospital, stayed until 2 am, rinse, repeat. This cycle continued for the next month. It was rough, to say the least.

Because I had taken time off for the recent funeral, I was too skittish to request time off to care for my mother in the midst of her own brush with death. Even though I still had PTO left, I didn’t use it. And I’ve been dealing with guilt since. Why didn’t I do more when my mom needed me?

It turns out, I wasn’t alone. Studies show that American workers are afraid to use their paid time off.

With this in mind, it might be time to recalibrate our thinking. It’s not that we should excuse laziness or let people slide by getting the least amount of work done, but we also shouldn’t feel trapped into focusing solely on workplace goals and nothing else.

Whether an executive or employee, everyone has a right to their PTO.

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Not taking time off is counterproductive. Even in a pandemic.

Sick days are there for a reason. Your employer determined the appropriate amount of time to take off work and still get paid. I’m not advising that we take them needlessly, but I am a big proponent of taking them as needed. Why do so many of us struggle with this? Well, it’s hard to let go of our work, especially with a daunting task list staring us straight in the face. We all want to be that workplace hero who grinds through everything, but is that the best idea? It’s neither productive nor conducive to a healthy relationship with work.

Making matters worse, sick days are harder to take now than ever. While most of us are grateful for the remote or hybrid work environment, this progressive setup almost encourages us to power through illness in exchange for a crossed-off checklist.

But, ask yourself, will you really get that much done desperately clinging to a keyboard — all the while, wincing in pain with one swollen eye twitching? In reality, your time might be better spent resting and getting ready for the next workday. You’ll be amazed how much more work you can complete when you return — reinvigorated – than if you’d kept working through a less-than-healthy state.

Generations before us trudged along like workhorses. And I’ll give them their due credit for it. But these days, we know better, so we must do better. Gone are the days of glorifying overworking. At the risk of sounding insensitive and trivializing the recent tragedy, the pandemic has been a not-so-subtle reminder that health matters, including mental health. It has challenged us to slow down and prioritize wellness.

Don’t be a shell of a human. Live a rich and fulfilling life by remembering these workplace practices:

  • Take breaks.
  • Meditate.
  • Get outdoors.
  • Nourish yourself: mind, body, and soul.
  • Turn off Slack notifications when you’re off. If it’s an emergency, they will find you. FOMO can wait.
  • Take sick days when you’re sick.
  • Take a vacation. They matter.
  • Worried about deadlines? Delegate.

Bonus — these tips might even help prevent the need for sick days. That’s because treating your body and mind right is a great way to boost your immune system. But when that need inevitably hits, take a day to heal.

Being the type of workplace that prioritizes health and wellness is likely to reap the rewards in increased productivity and higher retention. Those who work for or manage the type of workplace environment where days off are frowned upon might consider some big changes in the coming years. No one is invincible. Taking care of ourselves helps us take care of business. You can’t draw from an empty well.

Feeling a bit under the weather? Have a family emergency? Put down the blue light glasses. Step away from the trackpad. And take a day, already.

By Allison Igwe
Executive Author

Executive Editor, Massive Alliance

Allison Igwe is the Executive Editor at Massive Alliance. She has several years of experience in professional writing and editing across multiple industries. view profile

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