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Doing sick days the right way.

How many of us have managed to sit at our home-office desks struggling with a terrible cold, a migraine or other illness? I know I am guilty – it’s much easier to work while sick when working from home – but is it really a good decision?

In some respects, having an office job with a physical commute can be a huge help in the decision to take a sick day. If you are contagious, it’s a no brainer. If you’re not contagious but can’t face the thought of getting showered and dressed, travelling to work and then sitting for eight hours in an environment that is usually too cold or too hot… again it seems like a no brainer. Stay off work, spend all day in pyjamas on the sofa with Netflix, give your body the time it needs to heal.

Taking a day off

However, if you remove the barriers of commute or contagion, the decision to take a day off is one that many of us seem to struggle with. For me, last week is a good example. I came down with a severe cold and spent a good five or six days feeling utterly miserable before my husband essentially forced me to have time away from my laptop. He insisted that I spent at least two hours in bed taking a nap. It turns out this was exactly what my body needed.

As a homeworker, you can usually get away with working much further into an illness than our office-based counterparts. But this can be counter-productive, as it is very likely that the quality of your work will suffer. While there is a balance to be found between maximising productivity and minimising absenteeism, allowing yourself time off work to heal and regain your health is likely the better option. Four – or even three days on full power has got to be better than five days of slow working, feeling rubbish and making mistakes.

Casting my mind back over the years, I wonder how many days I have worked when I shouldn’t have. Certainly, last week I would have done better to take time off earlier in the illness before my productivity ground to a virtual halt later on. Over the years, there have also been days when I have had migraines, but still soldiered on squinting at the screen through one barely open eye. What is it about working from home that makes it so difficult to recognise when we should not be working at all?

Guidelines on sick days

With curiosity taking hold, I did a bit of research to see if there were any guidelines on the web as to when homeworkers can legitimately call in sick. Surprisingly, however, there is very little information on the subject. All of the sickness policies I read dealt with illness from the perspective of the business – thou shalt report in sick no later than 10am, thou shalt provide a doctor’s note after the third day of sickness etc. Even ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) had a section on absence policies, but this was also designed from the viewpoint of the business.[1] There was little guidance for the workers themselves about the criteria for calling in sick in the first place.

The matter is further complicated by issues such as sick pay. Some homeworkers – especially the self-employed - find themselves in a situation where if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Others in employment may feel pressure to continue working either from their team, their management or even themselves. But again, prolonging your illness is counter-productive and more likely to lead to lost revenue than taking one day off work.

One assumption that we can make is that if you are a homeworker the chances are you are also an adult. And as an adult, you are justified in making autonomous decisions about your own situation and health. Just because you can work from home while you are ill doesn’t mean you should. It is important to remember to be kind to yourself and allow yourself time to recover. Ultimately, you have to make your own decision about whether are too sick to work from home on any given day. But I think a good rule of thumb would be to ask yourself if, feeling this ill, would you commute into the office? If the answer is no, you probably shouldn’t be working from home either.

What are your experiences? Do you have any guidelines that help you decide if you should work or not? Please share them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear other views on this topic.

[1] ACAS – Absence from work. Accessed 27th May 2021.

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