How does that saying go? If you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em? Well if you’re lucky enough to have sick days, you should take them.
Everywhere, I hear coughs.
As I make coffee, my flatmate rasps. The soundtrack on my bus to work is an episode of Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast and the irregular wheezing and sniffling of my fellow commuters. Just now, as I type these words, someone near me in the office sneezes, a body-rattling number that causes their deskmate to raise their eyebrows in alarm.
Now is the winter of our discontent – and by discontent, of course, I mean flu. As January shakes off the wine-soaked anaesthetic of December, prepare yourself for the onslaught of coughs and colds, sniffles and sneezes, and every other ailment and malady under the sun. Everybody is sick. And nobody is staying home.
The number of workers taking sick days has fallen to the lowest rate on record, according to the Office for National Statistics. In 2017 British workers called their bosses and asked to stay home just four times a year, compared to more than 7 times in 1993. In the US, the problem is particularly exacerbated among millennial workers, 14% of whom took no sick leave at all in 2017.
Of course, not everyone gets sick leave. Freelancers don’t get it and in the US there are many workers employed by small companies who are not given time off when they’re ill. But if you are in the UK and in full-time employment you are entitled to a raft of sick days. So please, for the love of God, take them.
Consider this your public service announcement: if you are unwell, stay at home. Do it for your own health, the health of everyone in the office around you, and for all those who can’t take a sick day of their own because they don’t have any to take. You are doing everyone a favour.
Last weekend, as I read that BuzzFeed millennial burnout essay that everyone was talking about, it struck me that the demise of the sick day probably came about at around the same time as the rise of burnout. In the essay, author Anne Helen Petersen talks about the millennial need for “self-optimisation”, or the idea that – whether through self-care or wellness or a side-hustle or an online course or a stack of books by glib gurus piled up on your bedside table – you might be able to radically improve yourself until you reach a level of enhancement in which you no longer feel so totally, overwhelming exhausted all the time.
Sick days have no place in this particular iCal. They have no place in the schedule of someone who never uses an out-of-office message, who is contactable at all hours of the day (and night) via email, slack and WhatsApp. Sick days have been replaced by just coming into the office and working or – this, offered as a palatable alternative – working from home, which is to say, working.
Whatever happened to the good old fashioned day off? The one in which you tapped out a plaintive message to your boss and then crawled back into bed, pulling the duvet right up to your nose. The one in which you binge-watched a glut of Gilmore Girls episodes before you even knew what the phrase binge-watching meant. The one in which you ate only instant noodles and drank only sugary tea.
That kind of sick day feels like the remnant of a bygone era, but I am here to tell you that the sick dayanaissance is here! Rise up, and take all of your sick leave. If you’re feeling poorly, don’t come to work. If for whatever reason you need a day off, call in sick.
Part of the reason that Petersen’s essay has resonated with so many people (it has been read by millions and counting) is that so many people feel the effects of burnout but don’t know what to do about it. Burnout is an insidious thing that comes on not with a bang but a whimper, a slow-burning exhaustion that arises from the myriad of tiny, extra things that we take on every day of our lives.
As Petersen concludes in her essay, burnout can’t be cured by a face mask, or 15 minutes of meditation, or cooking an Instagram-famous recipe, or an adult colouring-in book, or the Pomodoro technique, or “overnight fucking oats”.
No-one really knows what the cure for burnout is, but in its most extreme form it probably comes from a mixture of therapy and the ability to nip things in the bud before they snowball out of control.
All of this to say that if you’re feeling sick and you need time off, then taking proper sick days – and taking all of them – is a step in the right direction to curing burnout, once and for all. If nothing else, it will give you the chance to catch up on the new season of The Good Place.