Lena Dunham’s powerful message reminds us why we need to take sick days

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Kayleigh Dray
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Whether it’s answering emails after hours, skipping lunch to power through our to-do list, or staying late to finish off an important task, it’s clear that many of us find it difficult to switch off when it comes to our careers.

And, when it comes to taking sick days, many of us prefer to head to the office and ‘soldier on’ through whatever bug we’re nursing, in a desperate bid to avoid falling behind – or to impress our bosses with our can-do attitudes.  

However Lena Dunham – aka the feminist icon who brought us HBO’s Girls – has now spoken out to address our failure to take sick days when we need it, and the sexist issue this presents.

The 30-year-old actor, writer, and campaigner was recently forced to cancel an appearance at an indie bookstore due to a bout of illness.

While many fans sent her ‘get well soon’ messages, others slammed her for letting them down - and one ‘fan’ even wrote: “No offense, but you’re too sick to sit and sign books?

“I was back at work 6 days after a c-section.” 

Taking to Instagram to address her critics head on, Dunham shared a screen-shot of the message she had received.

She captioned it: “This was a response yesterday when I said I would be cancelling an appearance at a bookstore because I was sick.

“At first it made me laugh a lot- like, oh, I'm sorry, I left your award in the car. But then I really contemplated how dark it is that our culture prizes these speedy recovery narratives, because guess what? They're actually ways to keep women from feeling f**king pissed that they don't have proper maternity leave or medical and family care resources.”

She finished: “We may not have an imminent policy change on the way, but we can change the way we talk about this stuff, and treat childbirth (or fatherhood! Or illness!) as the serious and personal journeys that they are.#leftyourawardinthecar #nooffense#paidfamilyleaveforall

It’s not the first time that Dunham has addressed such a topic; just last year, she penned a message to women battling mental health issues, reminding them that they should never be ashamed of making the decision to take some time out for themselves.

“Work is, organically, a place of yes,” she wrote in a guest post for LinkedIn. “Because I had so much shame about the private strings of unanswered texts, broken plans, re-made promises, at work it became my mission to answer every email no matter the hour, agree to every added task, finish the day off by reading a link sent by a colleague rather than a book for pleasure.”

“And, for a while, it worked like a charm. A compliment like “you’re the fastest email-er I know,” or “how do you do so much at once?” was better than a romantic sweet nothing to me. It fulfilled my desire to be seen as unsinkable, reliable. And in the deepest place, lovable. But we can only pull off a high wire act for so long before gravity does its job. The more my personal relationships suffered, the more I wanted to work.”

Dunham went on to explain that as soon as a polite “no” entered her vernacular (“I can’t do it realistically by Friday,” or “I wish I could be on that panel but my week is insane,” or even “no, I’m not comfortable with this dynamic”) that "something miraculous happened".

“People respond well to honesty, to reality,” she said. “They understand.”

Her words echo those of our very own Lucy Mangan, who says that we “need to break this vicious cycle in which we have all become prepared to work until we drop – and then crawl on the floor to the office instead – and learn to put our health first.

“Employers need to accept that without this happening both we and they have nothing. And if we can’t do it? Well, a great sickness indeed infects us all.”


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.