Why sick days matter
Working through illness has become increasingly common, especially with the advent of remote work. Lindsay Troxell, Senior Director, Knowledge Labs® Professional Development, discusses why financial professionals tend to avoid taking sick days and how we can begin to reverse the trend.
7 minute read
- Working increases our stress hormones, which are helpful in some situations but if we never take time away we can develop chronic stress.
- Arguably, everyone would benefit from resisting the urge to push through when they’re inevitably faced with being sick on a workday. This is especially true with COVID.
- By taking breaks when we need them, we will ultimately be in a better position to provide clients with the support and attention they deserve.
“Sorry if my voice sounds strange on this call; I’m sick.”
“Excuse my brain fog; I’m recovering from COVID-19.”
“I’m going to be off video for this one; I’m not feeling well.”
For many financial professionals., pushing through a work meeting remotely with a phrase like this has become remarkably normal, especially since the start of the pandemic. Others in the meeting don’t even blink twice; they just offer well wishes and carry on with the discussion.
My experience with COVID this year forced me to reckon with this phenomenon firsthand. As soon as I confirmed that I had what was considered a “mild” case (which still included some very uncomfortable symptoms), I will admit I was tempted to carry on with my work to-dos and a full calendar of meetings. I’d be sitting in the same spot on my couch anyway – what was the difference if I just logged on while feeling poorly?
As a life coach and wellness expert who has consulted with professionals in this industry for over 19 years, I did some reflecting before going down this common path. And I ultimately decided I had to go against those instincts to push through.
To this day, I stand firmly behind that decision. That’s because I have personally experienced the effects of prioritising wellness when you need it the most – and the burnout that can happen when you don’t.
In fact, I think everyone would benefit from resisting the urge to push through when they’re inevitably faced with being sick on a workday. This is especially true with COVID – some doctors warn it can take up to a month to fully recover, even for people who are vaccinated and healthy, and even for those with relatively mild cases, like mine.1
Why we need to fill our own cup first
I’ve talked to many financial professionals in recent months – especially women – who are experiencing burnout. Burnout doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, even if it sometimes feels that way. It starts at the foundation of our wellness pyramid – the physical level – and can cause all the other layers of our wellbeing to crumble if we don’t address it.
This is why it’s so important that we take time to rest and heal when our bodies are fighting illness. Working naturally increases our stress hormones, which are helpful in some situations. But if we never take time away from that stress, we can develop chronic stress, which is directly related to an increased risk of other physical and mental health issues.
What’s stopping us?
In my experience, people tend to cite two main reasons for not taking a break when they are sick.
The first is that working from home accelerated an already hyperconnected culture. As the pandemic normalised remote work on a large scale, many of us suddenly found our work-life boundaries becoming increasingly blurred. After all, when you’re wearing the same clothes that you’d normally be wearing after work during work, it only feels natural to stay at your home computer desk a little longer than you used to at the office, especially when there’s no longer a commute to deal with.
The comfort of being at home combined with the lack of separation between work and home often creates a sense of guilt for not working. When it’s so convenient –when your laptop is right there – why not send one more email?
And therein lies the slippery slope. That “one more email” can quickly turn into a spiral of guilt for not doing even more work. This vicious cycle is never healthy or productive, but it’s especially harmful when we are feeling physically unwell. Working through a time when you should be resting will only end up prolonging your recovery and set up a dangerous precedent for the long term. After all, if you don’t allow yourself to rest when you’re feeling your worst, when will you ever rest?
The second reason colleagues cite for not taking time off when they’re ill is what I call the paid-time-off predicament: the increasingly common practice of employers combining sick and vacation days into one bank of paid-time-off hours. Employees often struggle to justify taking a sick day under this arrangement because they’d rather save that time for a day on the beach. I believe more companies should implement allotted sick days in addition to regular paid time off. While they’re technically all paid time away from our jobs, the way we label those days matters.
It’s important to recognise that the ability to take time off of work to recover from illness is a great privilege that not everyone has. Unfortunately, some people’s employers simply do not support it, while others may be in a stage of their careers where they don’t have much of a choice.
That said, most financial professionals are in a position to take sick days, with most of us falling into the 75% of all private industry workers with access to paid sick leave as of 2020.2
Modelling (and requesting) the behaviour you want to see
Going back to the reason I decided to skip my scheduled Zoom calls while I was recovering from COVID, there is power in modelling the behaviour you want to see from others. All too often, I see leaders of teams enacting a “do as I say, not as I do” policy. They’ll tell direct reports to rest up during times of illness, then proceed to reply to emails and schedule meetings when they are ill themselves.
The second part of this is graciously calling people out when they exhibit behaviour that damages your team’s culture. It doesn’t have to be aggressive. For example, if someone joins a meeting with you and mentions being sick, suggest that you don’t need to have the meeting right then. Assure them it’s not a true emergency (in our world, it usually isn’t!) and offer to reschedule when they’re feeling better. It may feel awkward the first time, but the goal is to make this a part of your personal brand that will inspire others to follow suit.
I understand that holding yourself and others accountable is so much easier said than done. But the only way we’re going to see positive change in our industry and our culture is to model and request the behaviour we want to see.
Averting a burnout crisis
People get sick; it’s a fact of life. No amount of healthy eating, exercise and vitamins can prevent the occasional bout of illness. And yet as a financial professional, I’ve seen the practice of working while ill become even more prevalent with the advent of remote work (which is somewhat ironic given that we all started working from home to avoid getting sick with COVID).
I worry that if we continue upholding the industry’s culture of not taking sick days, we will collectively enter a burnout crisis. That would be unhealthy for all of us – especially our clients. After all, how can we expect to care for our clients if we can’t take care of ourselves? And perhaps that’s the motivating factor we need to focus on to make progress on this front: the knowledge that, by allowing ourselves to take breaks when we need them, we will ultimately be in a better position to provide our clients with the support and attention they deserve.
1 “How Much Rest Do You Really Need When You Get Covid-19?” Wall Street Journal. July 27, 2022.
2 “Employee access to sick leave before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2021.