In Support of Sick Leave

young black businessman coughs

Last week I took a sick day. It’s a rare thing for me, but I was just too ill to come to work. A nasty bout of food poisoning coupled with a fever had me lying low for 48 hours, most of which I slept through.

Because I took the time though, I came back to the office rested, refreshed, and feeling much better. I also returned with renewed gratitude and appreciation for sick leave as part of my benefits package. I know many are not so fortunate.

When it’s provided as a workplace benefit, sick leave assures those who are ill that they can take time to recover or to care for an ailing family member. It also protects those at the office from being exposed to infectious diseases and may in fact lessen the spread of contagious illnesses like the flu. Knowing that any one of us might end up out on sick leave also encourages us to be prepared not to be at work—to make sure that, even in our absence, the communication lines remain open, the information necessary to keep the work place humming is available, and back-ups are in place and ready to step in.

But aside from those basic and important ways that sick leave serves us all,  it also influences a practice called “presenteeism.” While the definition of presenteeism can vary, it generally means coming to work when ill or in pain. While that might sound admirable to some, research (including a recent paper by Allen and colleagues) has shown that presenteeism can cause serious problems both for the work place and for the people who work there. Employees impaired due to health issues show poor concentration and are less productive, which directly impacts the quantity and quality of their work. Those same employees might also find they don’t recover as quickly or that their illness is exacerbated by trying to push through. And the situation isn’t much better for their co-workers, who might still be called upon to pick up the slack while risking exposure to whatever contagious illness their sick colleagues have.  As a result those individual decisions to come in to the office despite illness might ripple through the team or organization for weeks, causing more absences and lost productivity.

Many factors contribute to presenteeism, including a sense that we are essential to our work place. (I can be guilty of that one.) We also often hold a high bar to what constitutes being “sick enough” to take a day off, a factor frequently impacted both by one’s personal sense of commitment and responsibility and by the work group’s norms and expectations. Others, particularly those who’ve experienced serious illness, know the value of banked sick leave and look to preserve hours whenever they can. And sometimes the leave policies themselves lead to a perverse use of sick time, such as when all personal time off is lumped into a single category, so that taking a sick day runs tantamount to shortening your next vacation. (The federal leave system does not work this way.)

Regardless of what is behind it though, presenteeism costs us all. In contrast, using sick leave appropriately helps us all, by ensuring that you’re tending your health, reducing the spread of contagious illnesses, and contributing fully to work once you’re back in the office.

So, the next time you feel under the weather, have a slight temperature, or are struggling with chronic pain, think more seriously about taking a sick day. Chances are you’ll make the workplace healthier and more productive, and even more importantly, you’ll make yourself feel better.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

6 thoughts on “In Support of Sick Leave”

  1. Unfortunately, millions of Americans have no paid sick leave, or even UNpaid sick leave. Adding paid sick leave as a benefit for all of us would be a great thing.

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      1. I’m not sure but I’m disappointed that In this essay you put the onus on the worker, as is often the case, when in fact sick day policies are out of kilter. I really don’t think employees are the main problem. Your viewpoint seems out of touch and I don’t see what this essay accomplished other than annoying people who already have a lot to contend with.

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      2. Thank you for your comment, Valorie. We really appreciate your feedback. I’ll be sure to share it with Dr. Brennan.

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  2. Hello Patti. Thank you for writing this piece in support of paid sick leave. I also wholeheartedly agree with you on this topic. As the Director of the National Library of Medicine could you look into or implement a mandate that all contractors with NLM should also have a similar federal sick leave system? I believe that this would set a great example and perhaps lead to a more healthy society.

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