Sick, Dude

I had my first severe cold in a while last weekend, strong enough that I’m still recovering from it a week later. It hit me last Friday at the end of a stressful week; I slogged through Saturday weak and drained (mostly through my nose). By Sunday evening I was miserable and it was clear I would have to take a sick day on Monday to stay at home and rest.

feverBut even as I was emailing my boss and others to let them know I wouldn’t be in the next day, there was a small part of me feeling selfish and indulgent about choosing myself over work people were relying on me to do. I was going to bed with a 101.1 degree fever, but still anxious about what it would mean for my productivity.

I’m an idiot sometimes.

Of course, taking that sick day was exactly what I needed to do, and a more productive use of my time and energy than if I had tried to go to the office in that condition. In fact, being out sick for a day may have made me better at my job this week than I was all of the past month.

The reason? I was able to spend a Monday focusing on what I needed to do for myself, rather than worrying about what I needed to do for others.

Generally, I’m not really good at being sick at home. Unless I’m really ill, I get too restless to just lie on the couch vegging out with Netflix, too distracted to get focus on a book. I’m lucky that all that was keeping me home was an annoying cold/flu bug (highlights include hacking coughs, boxes of tissues, brightly-hued elixirs, and quarts of hot tea). It shortened my attention span but not my need for doing things.

While I had my work laptop and could access all I would need for a full day of work from home, I didn’t have the energy to stay focused on anything big. But I could do lots of little things all day long, and that’s what I did.

I slowly made my way through all the virtual piles I had built up over the past month that had been blocking my mental pathways. I cleared out my Gmail inbox, unsubscribing to newsletters I don’t read anymore. I finally read or watched or archived and closed whatever I had in kept in dozens of open tabs in my browsers for weeks. So many of these I just deleted or closed without looking because I just didn’t care anymore. I even had time to focus on building out a new project in Asana for the HighEdWeb NY Regional Conference I’m helping to organize for this summer, a task which takes more time than energy but would have been a huge distraction if I was at the office.

So as I sat at home emptying my head and lungs of all sorts of blockages, I also purged the blockages in my mind that had been distractions from bigger things. By the time I got back to work the next day, it was with a clarity and purpose I didn’t have before, and wouldn’t have had without that day of focusing on myself instead of worrying about what I felt I owed others.

Sure, I recognize that not everyone gets to have sick days like this. First off, I don’t have children or pets to worry about, so when I’m home on a work day, it’s just me and the hum of appliances until my wife returns. Nobody else’s needs or schedules to interfere with my own. I like the quiet.

And I am lucky–grateful, really–to have the benefits of a full-time job with a great employer and boss that take employee health seriously enough to encourage using paid sick days, even though few of us use all of them that we could.

In fact, even as I was drafting this I heard a radio story quote a survey by AARP which found that “52 percent of adults go to work or school ‘most of the time’ when they are sick; another 20 percent go ’sometimes.”

This was part of a larger report by Marketplace about President Obama’s current push for Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would “guarantee workers could earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year. ”

The report elaborates why this is important:

Health-policy advocates point out that Americans often have close direct contact with those sick workers who are least likely to get paid sick leave. For instance, says Alina Salganicoff, head of Women’s Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, “people who work in the restaurant industry have very low rates of paid sick leave”—the rate is 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 47 percent of retail workers get paid sick leave.

Salganicoff says if these workers do call in sick, they lose a day or more in wages, and risk being fired.

Showing up sick and underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication, is known as ‘presenteeism’ in HR-parlance. The Centers for Disease Control reports lost productivity from illness costs employers $225 billion annually; and it cites data from the Harvard Business Review that the cost of presenteeism is $150 billion or higher.

What a great word that is, “presenteeism” – a wonderful management-ese term for being present. “I’m here, I came to work, just don’t expect much out of me.” And yet so many like me who are blessed enough to be in a position that allows paid sick days feel somehow that “presenteeism” is better because it somehow proves we tried. And sometimes we feel we need to provide evidence of just how sick we are – “yeah, I’m here just so you can all listen to me cough and sneeze when really I wish I had just stayed home and I don’t even have the energy to procrastinate on Facebook right now. Hashtag ebola, right?” – as if somehow we feel someone would think we were lying.

There are clearly social, cultural stereotypes at play here and it’s easy to fall into their traps. That the opposite of being at work is being lazy. That not being tough enough to put up with a little cold makes you weak. That staying home and taking care of yourself means you’re selfish and don’t care about the work of the team.

I’m so over all that.

I know just how freaking lucky I am to be in a job that wants me to stay home when I’m sick, that will not demand that I work overtime to make up for it, and that other members of my team will be genuinely understanding and care for me to get better, just as I do for them when they are out sick.

Getting over this cold has made me more productive by lowering my tolerance for unimportant things. Sometimes the rewards of taking a sick day are even bigger than just getting healthy. It’s a chance to become even better than you were before.

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