Take More Sick Days

It’s for your health.

Photo: Waldo Jaquith

While sitting in the therapist’s office, I spun my tale of holiday woe — an unsuccessful run at the slot machines during a layover at the Vegas airport, an uncomfortable brisket dinner with Trump-voting relatives who were sore winners, a case of the pukes that knocked me out for two days, a delayed cross-country flight that involved a forced viewing of Bridget Jones’s Baby, and an East Coast arrival at 4:00 in the morning before I had to go to work the very next day.

“What do you think?” I asked my therapist. “Do you think it was the brisket? Or was it Trump that made me sick? Or maybe those enchiladas I ate in Vegas?”

I don’t lie down on a couch in the therapist’s office. I sit facing her because I like my therapy to be more conversational, and I enjoy watching her facial expressions, especially when she is concerned. When I asked her about the brisket, she dialed her concern face up to 11.

“You look worried,” I said.

“I blame the enchiladas,” she replied. “But I am worried. Your holiday wasn’t really a holiday. Have you considered taking a sick day?”

“No,” I said, shrugging. “My boss is cool. He lets me work from home sometimes.”

And that was the truth. As soon as I found out my flight would be delayed, I texted my boss, and he texted back that of course I should work from home. No muss, no fuss, no pushback. So I rolled out of bed when I could, and I logged a full day’s worth of work in my pajamas. I was efficient, too, dialing into all of my meetings and sending off all my deliverables right on time.

“Did you ask for a sick day?” she asked me.

I paused and checked my text thread with my boss. I hadn’t asked for a sick day. I specifically asked to work from home. As a white-collar, full-time employee, I have the luxury of multiple sick days in my vacation bank, and my colleagues typically encourage each other to stay home when they’re germ-y. But it never occurred to me to ask for a sick day.

“You didn’t ask for a sick day, then,” she said.

“I wasn’t sick,” I told her. “I wasn’t puking anymore.”

My therapist’s concern face went to 12. I realized that my definition of “sick” was different from hers. I figured that if I wasn’t puking, I could hustle my butt out of bed and get some work done. It dawned on me that I might still be sick, given the havoc that the holiday travel, plus the flight delay, wreaked on my body clock. I also realized it was probably a good thing that I don’t lie down on the therapist’s couch because, on that particular day — two days after my flight home — I would have fallen asleep.

I haven’t always worked in environments in which I can ask for a sick day. For a brief period, my parents owned a farm with livestock, and livestock do not care how many sick days you have in the bank. They care if you walk them, water them, feed them, clean them, and collect them when they bust loose. Then I had a series of jobs as an hourly worker, and I was trained to jockey for extra hours, bolstered by the allure of overtime pay.

When I entered the white-collar realm of dot-coms, the argument was that a company lived and died by the effort of its employees. In the thick of the startup world, when you’re on a small team pushing a big project to the finish line, you develop the mindset that every second counts, and you cannot waste time on silly things like colds and flus. Unfortunately, despite all the germs I gave to the dot-com cause, two of those startups still shut down and laid me off. Looking back, I realize that a single sick day wouldn’t have saved either of these dot-coms, but my reflex to work every possible second remains.

Now, for the first time in my life, I work in a place where taking a sick day is anything but wussing out — it’s encouraged. The catch is that I have to learn to recognize when I am sick. For all my life, I felt the pressure to pop a Tylenol, a Dramamine, or one of the special Aleves that the pharmacists keep behind the counter so I could make my deadlines and keep projects moving. Powering through is my default maneuver. I’m not proud of it, but I have come to the office with sniffles or a queasy stomach, just because I think that I need to prove how tough I am.

And for what? I proved how tough I was to the dot-coms, and I still got laid off, more due to economic downturns or the success of competitors than any fault of my own. I assumed that I still had good references despite the layoffs because I had shown that mere germs couldn’t keep me down.

In 2017, I will break this habit. I don’t work for dot-coms anymore. I should take my sick days as intended, rather than trying to play the hero and infecting the whole office instead. My therapist said I should go easier on myself and lower the standard that I set for feeling like I have to be at 100 percent all the time. I gave 100 percent at the holidays by traveling across the country, visiting multiple families with multiple political views, and getting sick from brisket, enchiladas, Trump, or all of the above. I didn’t come home with much left over, and I need to get better at knowing when I can charge my batteries.

P.J. Morse is a content strategist by day and writer of funny mysteries by night. The aforementioned funny mysteries can be found at her Amazon profile page.

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