The Stigma of Sick Days
For most of my adult life, the idea of taking sick leave was wrought with guilt, conflict on impacting my work, concern I was letting my colleagues down and a feeling that I was being weak. The British mentality of ‘soldering on’ has meant that as a nation we don’t tend to call in sick. In 2019, a UK survey by CIPD found that workers averaged only 6 sick days per year.
Throughout the pandemic, UK employees felt more pressure to be ‘present’, especially whilst remote working and thus working through Covid symptoms and other illnesses, despite feeling unwell. On the positive side, at least these workers were staying at home rather than coming into the office and spreading germs to their colleagues. Several years ago, I had the Flu, and despite being so sick I couldn’t bend down to plug in my charger, I was still in the office. I was eventually told to go home, but in some way, deciding to even ask for a sick day before I came in, was a right I did not feel I had.
As an able person, it is obvious to me how the presenteeism and ‘soldering on’ mentality has a huge impact not just on the person sick, but also on those around them. Working when ill – even from home – can lead to more sick days in the longer term, according to research. When it comes to disabled people and those with chronic illnesses, this issue is even more difficult than the general population. They face the pressure to be seen as ‘pulling their weight’, often trying to prove their worth and that employers were right to hire them. Working whilst ill has a tremendous knock-on effect on those already experiencing health conditions with higher risk to their mental & physical health and greater burdens on their finances.
As employers begin calling their staff back into the office, some learnings from the pandemic must be taken to avoid the pre-covid presenteeism culture. Much has been proved around the benefits of flexible working through the lockdowns and with Covid-19 physically forcing people to isolate themselves at home, it shows that staying away from others when you are ill, benefits all.
Employers need to create an environment that fosters trust and empathy, allowing those that are feeling unwell to feel comfortable to ask for space and accommodations and not setting any expectations for output whilst they recover. Employees, in turn, need to be honest and upfront about their abilities whilst sick. Just because you can work from home when sick, doesn’t mean you should. As a nation, we need to move away from a culture of being ‘seen to be present and instead nurture an environment where the wellbeing of each other is factored into the working culture whether you physically see that person or not.