In an article for the New York Times last month, Steven Kurutz noted a growing trend in the United States. As technology gives us an increasing ability to work from home, sick days are becoming a thing of the past. But don't be fooled into thinking that means the American worker suddenly has become more robust.

What's really happening is that workers call in sick but, rather than take time truly focused on recuperation alone, they still work. Whether it's reading documents, making calls, hopping on a platform like Slack or plowing through email, workers are still participating with the company.

Is this a good thing? The division in opinion is real, as shown on these curated comments on LinkedIn.

On the one hand, when companies allow you to participate from home, others benefit because you aren't around spreading germs. It's self-imposed disease containment, if you will, which certainly isn't going to lose any points with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, the companies don't lose all of the productivity they'd sacrifice if you went completely dark and weren't available at all. Staying home also prevents interpersonal conflicts--healthy employees have been known to retaliate against sick workers who show up by "sick shaming" them. It seems great for the bottom line.

But there's a dark side, as the article highlights well:

"Ms. Warchol decided to work through her cold rather than face 'the anxiety of falling too far behind,' she said, a nod to increased workloads as companies have downsized or cut back on hiring (or at firms in start-up mode).

"Some workers may be afraid to take a true sick day and seem indispensable to their employers. As Ms. Warchol said, 'Will it be seen as a sign of a lack of loyalty or tenacity?' And freelancers who lack job security especially may also have such concerns."

If you let these worries drive your decisions, you might not recover as quickly because you don't truly rest, and because the anxiety itself can manifest as additional physical stress. And in the even bigger picture, others lose the opportunity to step up and show what they can handle when you're gone. That can affect what they look like to management in terms of promotions or having more opportunities, and it can mean it's harder for your team to smoothly transition when you really do have to be completely off the radar.

For my part, I think workers always have had these anxieties to a degree. But now that technologies are undeniably in our faces, we struggle more to feel as though we can disconnect from the office. Whereas before we had a black and white choice either had to stay or go, now there's a muddy middle ground that didn't exist even a few decades ago. And so now it's not whether you're sick, but whether you're too sick.

The New York Times article points out that we can expand the definition of personal or emergency days. But I say that that doesn't address the big elephant in the room. Sick is not the same as needing to be away to handle a flooded basement, it's not the same as taking the day to close on a house, and it's not the same as having another way to handle the need for one more vacation day. It's all a reflection of the fact we're still not facing the working-through-sickness-because-of-worry problem, and it does businesses a disservice by painting an inaccurate picture of how well their workforce happens to be.

So why not just give people more sick days? Within this, we could designate a few specifically as home sick days, establishing clearer policies about how much time we expect someone to be available on those days and what the protocols are for reaching out to them. If only a very limited number of the home sick days are available, this would offer some flexibility while still encouraging team members and bosses to put recovery, not contribution, as the priority.

There might be better solutions, and I'm happy to hear them, especially since not all business situations are identical. But whatever we come up with, the practice of working through illness solely because you feel pressured to do so needs to go. On that, at least, I hope we can agree.

Published on: Feb 6, 2019
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