- When some teleworkers get sick, they still decide to go online to work.
- Research indicates that workers think they will feel guilty if they leave; they feel more guilty for working.
- But the urge to connect is tied to how managers are adjusting to remote work and the lack of sick leave.
Working from home has many advantages. Taking sick leave is not one of them.
That’s why it took Jake Sedlacek three years of working from home to realize: when he got sick, he didn’t have to pull through.
“Taking a day off and making sure you’re really well and then doing a great job the next day is much better than doing a week or two of 50% work because you’re not catching up on sleep or ‘ I feel terrible,” said Sedlacek, a 27-year-old product manager.
Sedlacek, who is based near Chicago, enjoys working remotely. But a big challenge is achieving work-life balance, a challenge that bosses need to guide. Although he wasn’t told to, he said he used to work longer hours – simply because his office was his home. And he worked despite his illness, even in companies where he had unlimited power.
Sedlacek is not alone in this case. When Michelle, a 41-year-old accountant, had a mild cold a few months ago, she didn’t take time off; she didn’t feel the need. Michelle verified her identity with Insider, but requested that we not print her last name for privacy reasons.
In previous jobs, she had to show up in person, even when she was sick. “My only option was to go to the office while I was sick and people hear me coughing and sneezing and not being happy, but who else is going to do my job? I have to meet that deadline,” said she declared.
Michelle, who has been working remotely from Texas since 2018, loves her current job and doesn’t feel the same deadline pressures. She can also avoid making others sick by working from home.
She said her company would accept her taking sick days off. But she feels that she has not had a disease serious enough to deserve it.
“I think working from home when you’re sick is a lot easier than going to the office because you can sleep, you don’t have to wear makeup, you can wear comfortable clothes, you can take a break too. often as you need,” Michelle said.
Paradoxically, some Americans’ conclusion to a deadly once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is to work while sick. It’s a consequence of how the pandemic has distorted many people’s relationships with work.
Sick days have become a kind of no man’s land for a certain type of teleworker: it’s up to them whether they should take them, and people who work from home simply aren’t. In a country that has made sick leave a privilege, bosses need to step in to fill that void and assure workers they can take time off. Workers need to feel comfortable deciding to take time off and feel comfortable articulating those boundaries. It is not always true that these two conditions are met.
People feel guilty for taking sick leave – but tend to feel even worse if they don’t
Working from home brought benefits like no commuting, the ability to exercise in the middle of the day or do laundry – but some workers, as Insider’s Aki Ito reports, work harder and longer to compensate for these benefits. This is not an inherent problem with remote work, but rather one that stems from a lack of safeguards and a lack of management intervention.
Guilt, in part, leads to the temptation not to call in sick.
That’s according to research by Prisca Brosi and Fabiola H. Gerpott, professors at Kühne University of Logistics in Hamburg, Germany; and WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, a leading German business school, respectively, which study organizations and leadership.
“We find that people tend to work from home despite their illness because they expect to feel less guilty,” Gerpott said. “They think about it and think, ‘Oh, if I keep working, maybe I can take some work off my colleagues, so they won’t have to.'”
The problem is, according to Gerpott, “human beings are very bad at predicting what they’re actually going to feel.” Instead, workers feel more guilty – because they couldn’t help their co-workers or themselves very well.
There is a positive side to the pandemic: people are no longer coming to work with symptoms and are not spreading the disease. They just stay at home. And, according to the researchers, the hurdle of deciding to work when sick is lower – because now you can simply work from home when sick by default. But there is a negative cycle, because the more you push yourself, the less you recover and the less you are able to commit to the tasks at hand.
To create a culture of taking sick leave when needed, bosses need to lead by example. “If your boss tells you that you just can’t work, but you see your boss still working every time he’s sick, that puts pressure on others,” Gerpott said.
Workers can call ‘silent sick’, but it’s bad for them and for the workplace culture
There’s an important part of the sick day equation: whether you actually have any. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one-fifth of civilian workers did not have access to paid time off in March 2021. But the more money you made, the more likely you were to have access to paid time off. For example, 95% of the top 10% of earners had access to paid sick leave, while about a third of the bottom 10% could cancel and get paid.
In person, low-wage workers said their bosses and companies pressured them to come when they were sick. Paid sick leave – or lack thereof – is a key issue for workers. Railroad workers in the United States were ready to strike and hit the economy over a contract that didn’t even include unpaid sick leave.
Like the “silent shutdown,” the feeling that paid sick leave is a special benefit can lead to what Brosi calls the “silent disease.”
“It seems like, oh, people are actually getting less sick, but obviously that’s probably not happening,” Brosi said. Instead, they’re home and “they’re still sick and they just don’t officially mention it.”
Michelle, for example, had to do the math on whether she felt bad enough to call out completely, or just be “silent sick.” She said she’s more likely to use her unlimited PTO to run an errand or get to a date. Another increasingly common use of sick leave: taking a mental health day, which, as Bloomberg reported, can be considered a qualifying illness for protected leave.
But Brosi said if you’re only using a day or two of sick leave to protect yourself against burnout or bigger issues, “you’re essentially trading your short-term sickness for your long-term sickness.” .
Ultimately, the rise of “silent disease” is a management issue, Brosi said. When workers with unlimited time off and flexible hours still log on, it shows a cultural problem — especially among workers who love their jobs.
For Michelle, it’s about creating a new equation. Sedlacek, who now takes the time when he needs it, is much less stressed. He thinks the urge to keep hooking up comes “from the older work culture of ‘work through anything'”.
“It’s much more about, OK, we have to think about our work cultures and how we manage those cultures,” Brosi said.
In Sedlacek’s case, one of the things that made a difference was working for a company that would restrict workers’ access to systems while on vacation if they knew those workers would be tempted to log on. He said it’s “probably a hundred times easier” to set healthy boundaries if your company proactively encourages them.
In their current role, management has made it clear that people should not work on weekends or late at night.
“We’re now moving into this culture where people feel comfortable saying, ‘Hey, I need a mental health day,’ or ‘Hey, I need a sick day,’ and it’s okay,” Sedlacek said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, they’re lazy.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, they’re really going to take care of themselves and do a good job because they’re capable of it.'”