The Blurry Line Between Sick Days and Work From Home Days

By Emma Hickey

You wake up one morning with a stuffy nose, a pounding head and the chills of a fever. If you go to work, you’ll surely spread around your cold, not to mention you don’t have the energy or the brainpower to make it through the day in this state. You decide to call in sick—or email or text in sick, as is often the case nowadays—and then fall back asleep until 9am rolls around and your phone begins to buzz with email notifications and messages from work. I know you’re sick, every request begins, but can you just do this one thing for me? Begrudgingly, you turn on your computer and get to work.

Does this scene sound familiar? In today’s hyper-connected world, something as simple as taking a sick day has become an ambiguous, nebulous thing. Working off-site and remotely is so common in startups and larger companies that being physically out of the office no longer communicates to your team that you’re unavailable. Combine that with the fact that technology makes us accessible even when we’re at home in bed, and it becomes nearly impossible to take a dedicated sick day.

There are two people to blame for this: us and them. Them is easy. They won’t leave you alone, even though you called out sick! They keep Slacking you with questions and emailing you with projects. Your boss still needs you to hop on a call, your coworker still needs you to finish a deck and your deadline is immovable. You’re aware that time doesn’t stop just because you’re sick, but it would be nice if they could cover for you while you rest.

Then there’s us. The ambiguity surrounding sick days is on us, too. We’re the ones who call out sick but say we’ll be online in the afternoon. We’re the ones who declare we’re too sick to go into the office and insist on working from home instead. We’re the ones who make a distinction between being too sick to go to work and being too sick to do any work at all. It’s not just technology and it’s not just them blurring the line between sick days and work from home days, it’s us.

No one wins with this arrangement. You won’t get your work done well and you won’t get the opportunity to rest and recover from your illness. And how are managers supposed to log days like this, anyways? Is it a half sick day? A partially sick day that doesn’t count as PTO but also doesn’t exactly count as a full day’s work? There has to be a better way.

If you’re in a leadership position, clearly define sick days to your team. Don’t let the line be blurry. Don’t let it be ambiguous. Create a space where people can take sick days when they’re feeling sick. Put systems in place to cover their work. Instruct your team to create OOO messages when they’re out for a sick day, and discourage them from getting online to check in with the office. If you’re not in a leadership position, you can still make an effort to avoid contacting your coworkers with requests when they’re out sick. There will always be extenuating circumstances where you need to reach out to a person who is taking a sick day, but create a culture where that’s the exception, not the rule.

One final note: In the US, paid sick days are not a guarantee. We’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t require employers to provide paid sick leave. States including California, Massachusetts and Oregon, and cities including Pittsburgh and Chicago recently passed legislation that requires paid sick leave, but a proposed bill that would require it on the federal level hasn’t made any progress in congress. In 2016, only 64% of workers had paid sick leave, and that number is considered an improvement from the previous years. Keep this perspective in mind when you’re navigating sick days, and let this injustice motivate you to do better with what you do have.

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