Looking back over my career, which for me started in non-profit out of college in 1998 and 1999, included teaching middle school and high school, transitioned into the finance industry, and eventually culminated in working for myself full-time, I’ve had an opportunity to consider my approach to “sick days.”
In the early days, I took as many sick days as possible. The organizations or companies I worked for had policies that guaranteed no fewer than a certain number of sick days. I didn’t normally take sick days to conceal the lack of a desire to go to the office; for the most part, I was sick as frequently as I took advantage of these days, usually several each month. And for me, being sick involved something like the flu or flu-like symptoms.
Perhaps I was exposed to unhealthy people more often because I lived in an apartment with several roommates, shared an office with other people who would go to work while they were contagious, or spent weekends with hundreds of high school students. Perhaps it was a combination of all the above. On most these days I formulated the courage to call a judgmental boss to let him know I wouldn’t be making it in, I was actually sick.
I never once had an employer ask for a doctor’s note, but I’m sure a few times in my first job with the non-profit I received a call from the office to check up on me. I was not calling out sick to go to a concert, I was not partying. If I called out sick, I was either sick or recovering. Every once in a while I would use a sick day for a personal recovery day; but when you work long hours seven days a week because the organization is under-staffed and over-reaching, I think that’s acceptable. Occasionally.
But as I got older, my approach to sick days — and possibly my general health — changed. When my schedule was no longer super-packed, I didn’t get sick as often. I moved out of the communal apartment and found a place with just one roommate — and a few years later, lived on my own. I was no longer exposed to hundreds of children each week. My need to take advantage of the maximum number of sick days allowed by company policy decreased, even though I managed to fill the rest of my at-home schedule with working for myself.
Also, the company I worked for began offering an opportunity for employees to work from home. Although this wasn’t the intent of the flexible arrangement was, I could occasionally work from home if I felt under the weather, and the more relaxed environment might have saved me from developing a more serious affliction each time.
Officially, the financial company I worked for did not want employees to come to the office if they were sick because of the fear of an ailment spreading through the office. Of course, this not a genuine concern of a corporate entity; the company policy was such to avoid the possibility of reduced efficiency among the employees. While staying at home in the event of sickness was the official approach, at the team level it was a different story. Employees were expected to come to the office as much as possible despite the threat of transmitting sickness to others.
Quitting the corporate day job and working for myself full time probably had the biggest effect on my health. By writing this, I hope I’m not tempting fate, but I haven’t really been sick since quitting my job. Perhaps I’ve felt sick enough once or twice a year to prevent me from getting everything done in a particular day, but that certainly isn’t the same frequency of immobilization as I was experiencing towards the beginning of my working life.
It’s also true that my environment is more isolated today than it’s been any other time in my career. I have no office to go to. I do not work with high school or middle school children. I see people only when I choose, and so perhaps I’m not exposed to many of the same infections I would be had I remained in other jobs. I don’t have a stressful schedule. I don’t have stressful deadlines unless I create them for myself. I have control over the way I live and work, which was less true earlier in my life.
And, in some ways, if I have to take a sick day, it affects my own bottom line. That was not the case in the past, though if my superiors and co-workers thought I was taking advantage of company policy — and I’m sure they did — it would affect my reputation at the office.
If you work in an office, when do you call out sick? Have you used employer-provided sick days to take care of chores or to take care of your children, or do you just call out when you’re actually unable to make it to the office? Do you try to go in when you’re sick to continue work?
If you don’t work in an office, do you find that you’re not getting sick as often? Are there other factors that contribute to your health, like being around children or other adults frequently? Are you motivated to be sick less often if you’re working for yourself?
Published or updated October 30, 2013.