“I cannot go to school today” said little Peggy Ann McKay. “I have the measles and the mumps…” So begins Shel Silverstein’s poem, SICK. Peggy Ann had no qualms about taking a sick day even if she wasn’t sick. I on the other hand…
I grew up in a household where to call in sick for work was severely frowned upon. With a fever of 102 degrees and a stuffed up head, I told my Dad that I was calling in sick for my shift. He schooled me quickly, letting me know that I needed to pull myself together and get to work. They were, after all, counting on my presence and should I not appear, my absence would impact the entire shift and everyone else left to run things. Mind you, I was not a brain surgeon or even a surgical nurse. I was, in fact, a clerk at Sav-On Drug. I was 19 and my responsibilities were to man the photo department and candy register. I know. Heady stuff. But, my Dad was pretty convincing and so I went to work with my fever, my congestion and a bottle of 7-Up sipped surreptitiously between customers. Crisis averted. The night shift team was saved.
This attitude toward calling in sick was firmly ingrained in my psyche. Over the years I showed up to work many, many times when I was clearly under the weather. After all, I had responsibilities to attend to, things that apparently I believed no one but I could handle , things only I knew how to do, my team was depending on me, etc. etc… While all that felt pretty admirable, in retrospect I realize it was also prideful and careless. In reality, people nearly always carry on when we aren’t there. Often, given the opportunity, they learn new skills and sometimes they shine and feel good about the skills you’ve helped them attain.
‘Truth is, if we are really good managers, we should always be grooming others to step into our shoes should we be unable to fill them. If we have an extended illness or some sort of personal catastrophe, we will then have prepared them for the task at hand and will also have done our employer a great service. As leaders we should be preparing others to step up to new challenges. In retrospect, the careless part of my behavior was that I put countless others at risk by coming to work while contagious and put those around me at risk. My immune system may have been hearty, but I was woefully oblivious to the danger I may have been exposing others to. Having lived nearly 6.5 decades now, I no longer take my health or that of others for granted.
Fast forward forty some years and while much had changed, my inclination to go to work “no matter what” was still quite the strong hold in me. My employer was “re-structuring” and as the newest addition to the area sales management team, I was the first to be downsized. When I got the call I expected, I was told my job had been eliminated. I was immediately asked if I would consider returning to the company should another position open up and I responded affirmatively. My next response was a question regarding my accrued sick time. The company policy was if you left the company, while you would be paid any accrued vacation time, any unused sick time would be forfeited. I had accrued nearly 200 hours of sick time, a benefit of my employment that I essentially was going to lose. I was assured that should I return to the company within the next year, those hours as well as my seniority would be reinstated.
Not three months later, they offered me another position , which I accepted and, as promised, all those unpaid hours returned to me. This was a pivotal moment in how I viewed sick pay. I made a three-pronged decision at that time:
- I would not be put in the position again, of losing a benefit that was part of my compensation package.
- I would take better care of myself.
- I would not foolishly put others at risk because of my pridefulness.
From that day on, I vowed to stop pretending I was a super hero. The final five years of my professional life I acknowledged that the world would go on and work could get done in my absence. When I needed to go to the dentist or to a physician appointment for preventative care or for physical therapy, etc, I stopped doing so on my day off and used a sick day instead. When I had major issues going on in my life, or a family member was ill and needed care, I took a day or so off in order to serve my family and/or restore and rejuvenate my body and soul. While there were some instances when I believed my presence was imperative, they were rare. ‘Turns out I wasn’t as indispensable as I believed.
Sometimes our bodies need rest and sometimes our minds do. In both cases, when possible I scheduled sick days in advance, so my absence was not a hardship for those who would cover for me. But, if I woke up with a sore throat or a head cold, I learned to stay home, to rest and heal instead of sharing my germs with everyone else. When my husband had surgical procedures done, I took the day to be by his side to support him. I stopped being a workplace hero and started being more of a hero in my own home to the people I love most.
This was the same girl, who years earlier took less than a week off following a corneal transplant. My work ethic, instilled by my hardworking parents, was still strong, but I had failed to realize that our bodies need rest when they are worn down and that failing to give them time to rest and recover was shortsighted. It took losing the sick time I was so proud to have NOT used, to make me realize the folly of my actions. God knows me well and He knew exactly what it would take to adjust my perspective.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not in favor of calling in sick for every hang nail. I cannot tell you how often I took sick calls for young women unable to come to work a couple days a month because of menstrual cramps. I suffered with menstrual migraines for many years, but, I powered through and came to work. I want to be clear that I don’t believe we should call in frequently for minor ailments, but, for genuine health related concerns; sick time is for that very purpose- to maintain health and wellness so that we can do our best at home and at work.
When I retired three years ago, I left with less than one hour of accrued sick time. Prior to leaving I took care of all my looming health issues. I scheduled time with my dentist, physician, optometrist and chiropractor and used my accrued sick time to do so. I didn’t take it in big chunks but a day at a time as those appointments were scheduled in advance on days I knew would have minimal impact on my co-workers. At work I continued to give 100% to my employer. I made a good living and was compensated well. I mentored other employees and trained others to do my job and be promoted. I was a loyal team member who did her best everyday. For the last few years before retiring, when I was given opportunity to provide input on job satisfaction, I repeatedly brought up the issue of sick time not being paid to employees who faithfully executed their duties rather than calling in sick for every minor malady. Such employees should be rewarded for their loyalty, not punished. I was very grateful for the many opportunities my company had provided me and for the opportunity to do meaningful work with wonderful people, but. I left still hoping they would change their policy for future loyal employees.
Sometimes people don’t take the time they need because the work stacks up in their absence. I get that. But, working sick and/or exhausted is bad for you and everyone around you. So, do everyone a favor. Call in sick. And when necessary, call in well.