I entered the working world at the end of 2019, just as COVID was on the horizon and at a time when I was naïve enough to think that job security was a given.
At my job, calling in sick was seen as a direct attack on productivity and I felt guilty whenever I wasn’t feeling well enough to work. In a COVID world, the slightest niggle of a cough has managers sending people home, handing out masks and pumping out hand sanitiser like it’s body wash.
And while it seems great that some employers are finally letting their staff go home when sick, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Enter: working from home.
With Melbourne and Sydney still in lockdown working from home has become a standard, with some employers even implementing it permanently. And it seems great: you can wake up at a quarter to eight and still be wearing your pyjamas with the pandas on them for your nine o’clock meeting.
But working from home comes with a caveat — there’s less chance of us taking sick or personal leave, and more chance of us working from home while feeling physically or mentally unwell.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, fewer people have taken leave due to sickness or injury-related issues since the pandemic began.
This seems like a win: people aren’t getting sick working from home and productivity in the workplace is surging—you can almost hear the cackles from capitalist corporations everywhere.
However, the other side of this equation is that people just aren’t taking time off when they’re sick because they are already at home. In fancier terms, this is called sickness presenteeism, or the act of going to work despite being ill.
And it rings true. As I started working from home, I began to disregard that two-day migraine that made my eyes water or the nauseating, cramp-inducing visit from aunt flow. Sickness presenteeism for me means waking up feeling absolutely piss-poor, popping some painkillers, making a coffee (from a very shitty pod machine) and trying to work.
There’s a reluctance among Australians in calling in sick to work when they are already at home. Not only is there a shared ‘she’ll be ‘right’ type attitude, but no wants to give up their preciously accumulated leave, especially if it’s just to stay home during a lockdown.
But when we don’t take time off when we need it, what suffers is not only our physical health, but our mental health, too.
Those who do suffer from mental health issues know that taking time off work when you need, will help you feel much more supported. Zoe is a writer who suffers from bipolar disorder, anxiety and chronic pain. She recognises the impact it has when she does choose to take leave.
“It gives me the space to rest, and to look after myself and my needs, without the stressful demands of work. For me, that also means being able to take better care of both my physical and mental health,” Zoe tells me.
There is also a sense of guilt that comes from the decision to take leave to look after our health. As someone who isn’t able-bodied, the guilt Zoe feels when taking leave to rest came from her own internalised ableism. “We often push ourselves beyond what we can do because that’s what society encourages us to do. It tells us our value comes from our productivity. So, when I needed rest, I’d feel guilty for it. I’d feel like I shouldn’t need it — and I’d often feel like a failure, because I needed to rest so much more than my able-bodied colleagues.”
Like Zoe, it’s hard for me to relieve myself from that guilt of taking time to rest when I am working from home. Our home has become our workplace and we no longer have physical separation of our work life from our personal life. We need a balance of work and play so we can feel more at peace when working from home.
And not working when you’re unwell is just one way of drawing a line between what’s unhealthy and what’s good for your physical and mental health.
So how do we break the chain? For me, I had to face the facts: I wasn’t built to continue working when I’m sick. And I needed to communicate this to my employers.
And employers don’t think we forgot about you. Please, kindly encourage your employees to take time off when they aren’t feeling 100%. And generally, don’t be an asshole when someone needs to take time off to rest and recuperate. Why would you want someone who can’t give you their very best self, to be working?