Why going to work sick is our unhealthiest obsession yet

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Stylist Team
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We’re all guilty of it…

They’ll “go home soon”, your colleague promises. After they’ve finished coughing up a week’s worth of flu all over your desk. After they’ve conducted a day of meetings in the hushed, hollow tones of someone whose cat has just been incinerated by the bin men. The cat is fine. It’s at home, napping on an unopened box of Kleenex, waiting for your bug-ridden colleague, crushed by the weight of her cold, to take her place on the sofa in front of This Morning. So why aren’t they?

In terms of germs, it’s been 
a bad winter. How many people do you work with right this minute who “just can’t shift this cold”? A variety of super-resilient bugs are hanging out in our office ventilation systems, waiting to pounce on the weak.

And still we soldier on. According to a report published by insurance company Aviva, 70% of us now refuse to skip work when we’re sick – even though we desperately need to. Think you know an office illness martyr? These days we’re pretty much all martyring, jogging along on the hamster wheel, coughing and spluttering through our 9-5s. The Stylist team have their own horror stories. Like fainting in reception due to the pain of a torn ligament and having to get an Uber in every day because walking was impossible. Having to halt a commute to vomit outside Buckingham Palace and being filmed by tourists. Taking
 a work call while trapped in a railway station toilet with particularly bad cystitis. And sitting sideways at your desk, ignoring a throbbing insect bite, only to find you are about to get septicaemia and need an immediate operation. All of these stories are absolutely true. It’s ironic, that in an age where the words wellness and self-care are
bandied about regularly, no one 
is taking care of themselves when 
it really matters. Question is, why? 

“I hate calling in sick, I see it as failure,” a friend recently confessed when I asked why she’d dragged herself into the office with a freshly broken elbow, the plaster cast barely dried. “The doctor was happy to sign me off, but I just thought people at work would think I was shirking as I’m right-handed,” she justified.

To evaluate why we won’t stay at home to suffer, we can largely put the blame on the pressures and expectations currently being foisted upon us in the modern workplace. In a study conducted by the University of East Anglia, research cited high job demands, stress and job insecurity as being among the main reasons why people drag themselves into work when they’re unwell.

“Sometimes it’s just not worth the hassle,” says one 33-year-old finance manager at a London bank when I asked several professional women to speak frankly about taking time off sick. “There’s always something in the calendar, one meeting that can’t be cancelled, so I tell myself I can’t possibly stay at home. When there’s always too much work, taking recuperation time feels a bit pointless – it usually means going back to worse.” 

It’s not just the frequency of sick leave that we’re rationing, but also the number of recovery days we will allow ourselves. According to findings published by the Office for National Statistics, the average period of sickness time taken annually by British employees has plummeted to its lowest level in 
a quarter of a century: in 2016, we took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness, compared with a peak-level of 7.2 in 1993. And while, granted, we could just be throwing less false ‘sickies’, we’re clearly in a position where we feel sick days just aren’t the done thing. And when we do take them, boy do they have to be justified.

Even when we stay at home, too weak to make the journey, we don’t recuperate. In an age where logging on during weekends and holidays has become the norm, it can feel hypocritical to ignore requests from our bosses while laid up in bed. Before tech rocked our world, the choices were simple: you go into work and function, or you’re off sick. Now the waters have been muddied and the reality of ever truly being offline feels somewhat intangible. What would it take for us to completely disconnect from work? According to a recent, rather startling, survey, one in four of us would have to be in hospital before we took a proper day off ill, begging the question: how bad does it have to get before we deem ourselves ill?

When I spoke to women, I was surprised by both a) how few sick days so many of them had taken in the past few years, despite feeling ill, and b) the pride they felt in resisting. “I’ve only been off sick once in the whole time I’ve worked at my company,” announced one, as if looking round for a medal, while another felt the need to emphasise how “genuine” her illnesses had been: “I stayed at home for diarrhoea and vomiting after a trip to Morocco and it was really, really bad, not just mild. And then I had flu, but that was proper flu – not just a few aches and pains.”

Seemingly, it’s no longer enough to just feel terrible, to be our own barometers of how we feel. We’ve all caught colleagues rolling their eyes when it’s announced that a team member is taking a third day at home with what they consider to be a minor ailment. But who’s to judge what makes a worthy illness? Your colleagues, or you?

One 29-year-old insurance firm manager joked that her team know her policy: “If you’ve got the s**ts, that’s legit, but if it’s a cold or flu there’s no reason why you can’t sit in a chair.” When it comes to ranking illnesses in order of severity, she has her own scale. How much 
time off would be reasonable if a member of her team had a migraine? “I’d expect them to be
 off for maybe a day, max.”

Evidently, the level of empathy our bosses feel towards our illnesses has an effect on the sick leave we take. The results of last year’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development management survey confirmed few organisations take any steps to discourage employees from coming into work when poorly, with more than half of bosses admitting they’ve never taken action to reduce a staff member’s presenteeism during illness.

But it isn’t always because bosses are unsympathetic ogres. “I try to set a precedent to not
 be off work ill very often,” the insurance firm manager explained, admitting that she has also praised colleagues who show up sick. “The way things are at the moment, there’s just a lot of pressure. I need my whole team to be at work.”

A 34-year-old solicitor confessed that her decision on when to come back to work after being ill has, in the past, been dictated by her boss’s tone in emails. “If it’s a friendly ‘get better soon, come back when you’re ready’, I’m much more likely to stay home and rest. When it’s just, ‘OK, fine’, I’ll start beating myself up about being off.”

If she can manage to be sent home by her boss rather than call in ill, she finds it’s much easier to negate the sickness guilt. “Somehow it feels like there’s less of a black mark against my name. Plus, the other benefit is that, because you’ve been to work, everyone can see you’re ill and not faking it.”

Still, for many professionals, there’s way more at stake than impressing peers in the workplace. “The thought that I’m needed and I’m letting sicker people down when I’m off ill often makes me feel worse, and so I usually end up going in,” says one 33-year-old locum doctor. Given that she’s freelance, being off work also has financial implications: “If I don’t go in, I don’t get paid.” When she was sick recently with gastroenteritis, she was faced with a particularly difficult situation: “I was working in a hospital, and the NHS rules are that you can’t see patients within 48 hours of your last period of diarrhoea and vomiting. For me, that meant taking three days off work for the illness, then a further two effectively in quarantine. Although I did comply, given the money you lose, I’d imagine there are some medical professionals who don’t abide by the rules.” 

Migraines need to be taken more seriously after this new research.
Migraines need to be taken more seriously after this new research.

In other industries, it’s sick-leave allowance that is incredibly strict. “There are always very low tolerance policies for sickness in schools,” says a 31-year-old teacher I spoke to.
“If you have more than three instances of sickness in a year
– and that can be three individual days – it’s common practice for you to be hauled into an office and told you’re going to be monitored.” As a result, she has never permitted herself to take 
that third instance – if 
she’s feeling under the weather, she’ll battle through. “It’s fine, but quite difficult if you’re feeling faint or queasy and need to run from the classroom.”

At the very worst extreme, sick leave isn’t even presented as an option. While researching this article, I couldn’t help but notice the phrase “Not allowed to call in sick” featured among the most popular search terms on Google. At a north London branch of Wagamama last Christmas, it was this sentiment that was pretty much painted on the wall. “No calling in sick!” read the sign attached to the staff rota. “Calling in sick during the next two weeks will result in disciplinary action being taken.” Unhelpfully, the author – a manager who presumably later faced her own disciplinary (especially after the move made headline news) – thought to add: “May I remind you that if you are unable to come in for your shift it is your responsibility to find somebody to cover [it] (as per your contract and handbook)”.

It wasn’t in the contract, of course. Neither will it be the last time an employee has been threatened over sick leave. A family member who works in retail says that in her line of work, where zero-hour contracts are common, bosses are often ruthless: “One full-time colleague told me that her former manager was unhappy with the fact she took more than a day’s sick leave – his recommendation was that she take the rest out of her holiday entitlement.”

To a different end, in other countries, sick leave and holiday entitlement are now being combined and packaged as an employee benefit. A 33-year-old HR manager friend who moved to Sydney a few years ago says that in Australia, it’s common practice for sick days and holiday allowance to be lumped together. “Here, the system is that you accrue sick days just like you would holiday, and if you don’t use your full allocation [usually 10 days] that year, you roll them into the next year. I’ve used very little and now have about six weeks of extra sick leave banked up that I can take whenever I want.”

By a similar token, employees at Google, Netflix and Facebook are being entrusted with unlimited sickness allowances. Comparable to unlimited holiday entitlement, these policies give employees the freedom to juggle their work and wellbeing as they see fit. Rather than tempt employees to slack, the consensus is that they actually have the opposite effect.

While the chances of others instilling these radical policies in the near future are fairly slim, it’s encouraging that some of the world’s biggest trendsetters are working to change our mindset. In not taking sick leave, we not only pose a risk to our health, but we’re breeding a culture that diminishes the rights we’ve been granted. Ultimately, the buck lies with us: it’s as much our responsibility as anyone else’s to alter the stigma we’ve created. So next time you’re ill, why not do everyone a favour? Shift the cat from the Kleenex, switch on the TV, and embrace your recovery.

Navigate sick leave: advice from the experts

SHOULD I GO IN? Dr Helen Stokes- Lampard, GP and chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners

What’s the real difference between cold and flu?

“They come from different families of viruses; flu is much nastier. With a cold you’ll have a runny nose, temperature and a cough. Flu has more serious symptoms such as a high fever, muscle ache, feeling hot and cold, sickness and diarrhoea and you shouldn’t be in work with it.”

How do illnesses spread in an office?

“The most common way is through bodily fluids: snot, mucus and spit. The droplets from a sneeze can travel the length of a bus, so it’s important to minimise contact.”

How do you know when you shouldn’t come in?

“If you’re having coughing spasms or a raging fever you shouldn’t be in. If you have diarrhoea or vomiting you shouldn’t come back for 24 hours. Even when symptoms feel minor they can quickly develop.”

Will coming in sick affect recovery?

“Rest is one of the most crucial parts of recovering from illness, so being at work can delay the process. You need to allow your body to heal.”

AVOIDING STRESS: Dr Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedford

I get so stressed about taking time off. Is it worth it?

“When you’re ill you’re much more likely to make errors and your performance will suffer. This is counterproductive. By taking time to look after yourself you’ll be able to tune in to your needs much more effectively.”

What are the mental benefits to taking sick leave?

“It allows us to re-engage with ourselves and see our wider life outside of work. You can then go back with perspective and be better equipped to deal with your workload.”

How do I stop half-working at home?

“The most important thing is to set boundaries – for instance having half an hour each evening to go through emails then totally switching off after that. When you’re ill, set boundaries and stick to them.”

Do we really need to retreat from work fully?

“When you’re working, you’re in
a state of physical and mental stimulation and it takes a while for our bodies to recover. When we’re sick, a total digital detox is helpful to reduce anxiety and allow ourselves to relax and recover fully.”

HOW TO CATCH UP: Productivity coach Hayley Watts, from Think Productive

I’m back at work and everything has turned to chaos.

“Get some quiet time. This might require you to work somewhere where you are less likely to be disturbed and highlight what’s urgent.”

Everyone is talking about projects 
I missed.

“Find an ally: your manager or another colleague. Find out if there have been any changes to what you’re working on, especially things that might change your priorities for the next day or two.”

I’m still struggling to get back in the zone.

“Use the Pomodoro technique.
 Do 25 minutes of work then take a five- minute break and repeat. It helps to create a deadline and keep you focused.”

Is multi-tasking ever helpful?

 It takes longer and we make more mistakes. Instead batch similar tasks together, so make all your phone calls, then deal with emails for an allotted time.”

What’s one thing you recommend we incorporate into our routine?

“Be brave and work offline at times. It’s much better to deal with a backlog of emails than be constantly distracted.”

Words: Megan Conner 

Images: Dan Saelinger / iStock