Parents, Take Your Sick Days
Responsibilities at work and at home put a lot of pressure on working parents to always be on — even when they’re sick. But continuing to work when you’re not feeling well can mean you’re not performing at your best. It also sets a bad example for your employees, coworkers, and kids, who are depending on you. So how do you go about taking the time you need? First, assess if you’re well enough to work productively at home. If you do call in sick, be direct. Second, work with your team to come up with a standard practice when it comes to being sick. Third, communicate with your partner and kids the importance of self-care and taking the time you need. Finally, remember the larger picture. If serious self-care becomes the bar for everyone, then we’ll all be supporting one another, at home and at work.
We’ve all heard the phrase “moms and dads don’t get sick days.” It’s meant to mean that parents are 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. As a working father and manager, I used to be reluctant to take my sick days. Before the 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. 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. While the pandemic may have taught us the basics of taking care of our health while protecting others — wash your hands, wear a mask, stay home when you’re sick — it’s still tempting to keep going when faced with your average case of the sniffles or sore throat.
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. 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 understandably 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:
- You’ll prevent the spread of germs, which will help keep those around you (at home and at work) healthier.
- 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 the playground, 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, or migraine. Mental health days are just as important. Taking mental health seriously can have an outsized 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?
First, assess if you’re well enough to work productively at home. 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 feeling unwell. 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 everyone’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 child care, 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 okay.)
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 not feeling well. Take the time you need to recuperate and care for yourself. You owe it to yourself — and those around you.
This article is adapted from the HBR Working Parents series book, “Taking Care of Yourself.”