Taking a sick day used to mean taking a break from your usual commute and the grind of daily activities to stay at home and recover. But with many people still working from home, calling in a true sick day might feel unnecessary. After all, it doesn't take that much effort to grab your laptop and work from bed, right?
That's actually flawed thinking, experts say. "We as a culture don't focus enough on self-care; we focus more on doing work," says Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a family medicine doctor and West Coast medical director for One Medical in Phoenix. "We truly need to normalize recovery and self-care, especially when we're sick." Dr. Bhyuan adds that anecdotally, she believes fewer people are taking sick days while working from home because she's getting fewer requests from individuals asking for doctor's notes to show they're sick.
Not taking sick days is not a trend spurred only by the pandemic, however. Even pre-COVID, people often still went to work—even if that meant spreading germs to their coworkers—with the mindset of "powering through." If there's a silver lining to the pandemic, it might be that people are more conscious about not going anywhere if they have any symptoms of illness, suggests Dr. Bhuyan. But there are personal consequences when you don't take the time you need to let your body heal by working from home. Here are three biggest downsides to skipping out on a full sick day off.
You’re less productive when you’re sick.
Simply having your inbox open all day hardly counts as work. And when you’re sick, are you really feeling up to tackling that big project you’ve been procrastinating on, even when you were healthy? Probably not. “When people push through an illness to work, they’re not operating at 100 percent,” Dr. Bhuyan says. Paradoxically, skipping sick days can cause you to lose out on productive work days. A few reasons for this: When you’re sick, you have a harder time focusing, can’t concentrate for as long, and may have a difficult time looking at screens for an extended period of time.
You could prolong your illness.
We all know that stress isn’t healthy. When you’re experiencing high levels of stress, it also dampens your immune response, says Dr. Bhuyan, which means it can take longer for your body to heal from an illness when you’re juggling anxiety-inducing deadlines and projects at work while trying to recover. It also takes effort to truly rest and focus on recuperating, she adds. When you’re sick, things like staying well hydrated and eating healthy foods high in antioxidants should be your main focus. “It’s almost like recovery is its own job,” says Dr. Bhuyan, “so when you are sick, that should be your number-one goal rather than focusing on your place of employment.”
You’re losing out on a teachable moment.
Self-care starts young. When children are sick, you want to teach them about the principles of taking care of themselves, and that includes physical and mental health as well as their overall well-being, Dr. Bhuyan says. Showing your kids you’re taking a sick day when you’re under the weather is a way to teach them that it’s OK to prioritize your health and model that example for them. And if they’re not feeling their best, it’s important to let them recover as well, taking a sick day even if they’re learning virtually from home, Dr. Bhuyan adds. The important thing here is to tease out why they’re not feeling well—as in, whether they have symptoms of a cold or flu or maybe experiencing anxiety over school. The latter situation will need to be managed differently.
And if you don’t have kids, you still have yourself (and your place of work) to set an example for: Set a healthy precedent for taking the proper time and space you need to heal physically and mentally. Forcing your sick self to power through with diminishing returns just reinforces unhealthy expectations going forward.
What justifies a sick day?
There’s no level of sickness that applies to everyone here; it really comes down to the individual. “If you’re questioning [whether you’re well enough to work], that’s a good reason to take a sick day,” says Dr. Bhyuan. You probably know your parameters and should trust your gut.
From an employer side of things, you should notify your manager as soon as possible if you are taking a sick day—ideally, the night before if you’re feeling unwell and don’t anticipate recovering by morning, says Kyle Elliott, MPA, CHES, a career coach and mental health advocate in Santa Barbara, Calif. Giving adequate notice allows your manager and impacted colleagues to plan around your absence.
While certainly not required (especially if you’re severely ill), it is helpful if you’re able to update your manager on current projects and deadlines in a simple email, Elliott adds. Also try to give a heads up of your absence to any meetings that were on your calendar.
What does an ideal sick day look like?
If you call in sick, avoid working—seriously. That sounds obvious, but many people find it hard to stay away from their emails and tools like Slack even when they’re technically off. “While work may be calling your name, you called in sick for a reason,” Elliott says. “So take time to rest and recharge.” Trust us: Your inbox will be there waiting for you when you’re healthy again.