Parents, Take Your Sick Days

by Tim Sullivan

Quick Takes

  • Commit to taking time off when you’re not feeling well
  • Try working from home—but only if you’re well enough
  • Be direct when you call in sick
  • Create standard practices with your team for sick time
  • Set expectations with your family for when parents are sick

Recently, I did something radical: I took a sick day.

I hadn’t been well for a few days, but I’d dutifully worked per usual. When I woke up on day three at 4:30 in the morning sicker than ever, I realized that I had to actually take time off. Like, really take time off—no email, no memo writing, no “just checking in.” So, I did: I napped, played video games, cuddled the dog, watched Netflix, drank some broth. By the end of the day, I felt better.

And that meant that my sick day—atypical as it was—was better for me, my team at work, and my family.

This last group is especially pertinent to me. I’ve been a working father for over 20 years, and I’ve managed folks with kids at home for more than a decade. We’ve all heard the phrase “moms and dads don’t get sick days,” meaning that they’re on the hook not only for themselves but for their kids too, and therefore unable to take time off. Ever. But the reality is that, despite their reluctance, working parents have to take care of themselves by taking time off when they need it.

That’s a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way over time. I used to be reluctant to take my sick days. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I can’t tell you how many times I went to the office with a low-grade fever or a bad cough. I still have residual pangs of guilt when I use my sick days, even though I know better now. I’m not alone. According to a 2019 survey of 2,800 workers in the United States, 90% of employees said they often or always went to work when they were sick.1 According to another survey from 2017, one in five full-time employees didn’t take any sick time in the last year (a stat that gets worse for older workers), and almost 60% of workers took fewer than five days.2

There are a few reasons why we still work when sick. Employees report feeling as if they’re burdening their colleagues with additional work. Some fret that the company will collapse without them. (It won’t.) Others say that they feel as if their organization makes it difficult to take any time off at all. Plus, we fear the “mountain of work” we’ll return to. Contingent or part-time workers may not get any sick days, let alone other paid time off, and working parents who use their sick time to take care of kids (an option in some, but not all states) can be under stand ably reluctant to use it on themselves.

Yet, there are good reasons for working parents to take the time they need to recuperate and take care of themselves:

  • Taking the necessary time to recover will shorten your sickness, so you can get back on your feet faster.
  • Your family is relying on you. Pushing through the week just to crash on Saturday means you may miss opportunities to go hiking, visit friends, or take part in some other favorite family activity.
  • Taking time for yourself communicates your priorities and models behaviors to others—both at work and at home. If you want your kids to grow up to take care of themselves and work in a healthy environment, prioritizing your own health helps them see that it’s OK.
  • Finally, “being sick” doesn’t mean that you’re down with a fever, chills, stomach cramps, and odd rashes. Mental health days are just as important. Taking mental health seriously can have an out-sized impact on family life by reenergizing you to engage with your partner and your kids.

So how do you actually go about taking the time you need? What are the things you need to consider in terms of logistics and schedules?

First, assess if you’re well enough to work productively at home. Always talk with your manager, but sometimes canceling meetings and video calls, so you can email, work on spreadsheets, or cold-call in your pajamas for a day will get you where you need to be. That said, don’t do this if your physical or mental state means you’re going to do work that’s subpar. If you do, you’ll have to do it over again when you’re feeling better. (As someone who has had to apologize for emails sent in the haze of the flu, trust me on this one.)

If you do call in sick, be direct. You don’t have to be elaborate about your reason: “I’m not feeling well enough to work today, so I’m taking a sick day. I’ll be back on the job tomorrow if I’m feeling better.” Some organizations or managers may push back on this, but you don’t owe them details about your health. If you’ve determined that you’re not well enough to work, stay firm. Remember, this is your time and your health.

Also, work with your team to come up with a standard practice when it comes to being sick. My team and I decided that our standard is not to work when we’re sick, period. That includes turning off email and group chats. It was hard to stick to the first time around (OK, I ruined it for everyone). But after renewing the pledge more recently, we’ve been able to stick to our plan, to every one’s benefit.

You may also want to communicate clearly with your partner about making sure you take care of each other by encouraging self-care. For instance, my wife and I let each other know when we would benefit from one of us taking a sick day—a concept that extends beyond simply not working and includes a break from childcare, errands, meal prep, and so on. And if we’re both sick, we try to agree about who gets the first day, knowing that we will reverse roles next time.

Tell your kids about your routine, too, so they can learn early how to value their own health. Be straightforward: “You know that I would like to be able to work, but I’m not feeling well. It’s important to take time to rest so that you can feel better.” (Yes, these words will come back to haunt you when it’s time for school, but that’s OK.)

Finally, remember the larger picture. If this standard—serious self-care—becomes the bar for everyone, then we’ll all be supporting one another, at home and at work. That’s as it should be.

You won’t be able to perform your best at work or at home if you’re sick or not feeling well. Take the time you need to recuperate and care for yourself. You owe it to yourself—and those around you.

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