Many people refuse to take sick days, even when they’re entitled to them — and I’m usually one of them. But it’s foolish to go to work sick, underperform and just trudge home even sicker. But why do we do this to ourselves?
We hate to admit weakness. Our popular culture, especially sports, build up an image of strength in working through pain or illness. Michael Jordan’s legend includes gutting through the flu to score 38 points and lead his Bulls to a 1997 comeback playoff win. Or a limping Kirk Gibson coming off the bench to hit a winning homer for the L.A. Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. We are shown moments of ailing athletes and other coming through and our pride takes over. But perhaps one of our greatest weaknesses is not admitting to weakness.
The pursuit of productivity. I’ll admit membership in the cult of productivity, a need to keep things moving, meet goals, always feel like I’m accomplishing something. But you can’t be very productive when you’re sick, no matter how you try to block it out, so sometimes taking a break to recover and recharge is what produces real productivity.
We like to feel irreplaceable. Chances are we’re good at something we do and feel we can do it better than anybody else. We fall into the delusion that things can’t get done without us, which is simply poor management on our parts. We should all have other people who can do tasks when we’re not around. Because, let’s face it, history shows all human beings get replaced eventually.
And so we soldier on, through coughing and running noses and headaches and fevers and chills, not only exposing those around us to our germs but preventing us from getting better. But we need to swallow our pride, and our medicine and vitamins and tea and chicken soup and whatever, and take that sick day.
Our bodies need it. The idea of getting better by working through, by showing our “strength,” is simply bunk. There’s a reason doctors have prescribed bed rest and fluids for the most basic maladies for millennia. If you keep trying to work through sickness, you prolong your illness, wear yourself down even more and even make yourself prone to additional ailments.
Our minds need it. When you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, your decision-making suffers. One of most valuable skills in the workplace is the ability to make good decisions — it suffuses everything we do — and trying to power through sickness detracts from this vital tool.
Our organizations need it. When you come to work sick and refuse to give up control of anything, the unwritten message is that you don’t trust your coworkers. True leaders instead take time to help others learn, groom them for increased responsibility and then give them opportunities to shine. If these opportunities come because you’re home in bed, then they are blessings in disguise.
>> I’m usually that stubborn guy who tries to muddle through the aches and pains, the sneezing, wheezing and coughing, but after trying to stave off something for days, last Wednesday after teaching evening class I came home and collapsed into bed. I realized the best solution was to give in and take care of my health. Taking Thursday off to recover and recharge made me ready to go and productive again on Friday. And since I’m incapable of being idle, I did spend part of my day off doing chores I normally have to shoehorn into whatever free out-of-work hours I can, which eventually relaxed me even more.
Admittedly, taking sick days off can be complicated by staffing, deadlines, projects and other life priorities. I know that for self-employed people a day without work is a day without income — but if you press pause so you can recover and return to do your best work, then you can look at it as an investment.
Every musical composition contains beats and rests. You can’t compose a symphony on all beats and no rests — the rests emphasize the beats — and you can’t live a fruitful life that way either. So when you’re tempted to work through a sick day even when you’re drained, think about taking a rest instead. The beat will go on.