Take a damn sick day

When Carrie recently left her job, to her horror she discovered the had 31 unused sick days. Here, she makes the case for taking a damn sick day.
Photo by Kamil S on Unsplash

I recently left a great job after three and a half years. It was a hard decision. One that I went back and forth about for a year and a half beforehand and then alternately regretted and was relieved over after making.

I left after a good run of it for good reasons that I am almost completely done second-guessing. I have what seems like it will be a good job that I will be good at ahead of me, and everything is fine.

Except. EXCEPT. I cannot get over my sick days.

An interesting thing about leaving a job is not just the actual leaving, but the acts involved in leaving. One of which is setting a weird “out-of-office forever” message on your email. Another is the exit interview with HR and the closing out of benefits. I’ve been lucky to have jobs with benefits and know not everyone is so fortunate. I’m about to bitch about benefits, so I feel like it’s important to get that out up front.

The job I just left had GREAT benefits, like a generous number of vacation days, personal days, paid holidays and also a heaping helping of sick time. I work in education, and while we don’t all have summers off like the students and everyone else in the world believe, we do get a LOT of time off.

In theory. Because here’s what I’m fixated on a few weeks after leaving and many, many hours into driving across the country following a U-Haul of all my earthly possessions with nothing to do but listen to podcasts and think — I never took any sick days. I mean, I took a few here and there, but relative to the amount that I earned, basically zero.

And the amount that I earned was staggering. Again, this is a weird thing to rant about, so I get it if you check out because what an obnoxious thing to have beef with. But! If you are still with me, stick with me.

For three and a half years, I worked an average of 50 hours a week (sometimes a standard 40, many times a sub-optimal 80) and have the true blessing at 34 to be in generally good health most of the time. I took a handful of what I called “Preventative Health Days” when I wasn’t actually sick but could sense that my mental health and well-being were teetering on the edge. And I remember taking another sick day when I was VERY physically ill with some pandemic contagion contracted from the youths, but I still checked email from urgent care. Even that was only one day because I (actually remember thanking my body for this) got sick on a Friday so could mostly recover over the weekend.

Nobody asked me to do this. In fact, at the macro employer level and the micro supervisory level, there were implicit and explicit signals to take time off if needed. For example, at the macro level, the fact that sick time was so generous seemed like an acknowledgment that taking that time was valid. And at the micro level, my bosses always told me to stay home if I wasn’t feeling well, or to head home if I started to not feel well or to think about taking time if I thought I might not feel well at some point soon.

What has frustrated me is that the ungodly force keeping me at work, convincing me to never miss a day unless absolutely necessary, and even then, be tied in every way imaginable to my desk from afar, was me.

I left my position with THIRTY-ONE days of sick time unused. That is an entire MONTH. A long one. I get all capsy here because I still cannot believe it. What did I think I was winning with this ruthless commitment to always being present? As my mom pointed out to me last week, there are no attendance awards in adulthood. And there wasn’t a payout for sick time unused. No one was standing around to hand me a medal for my valiant sacrifice of my early 30’s to work. If I’m super honest, I don’t think that anyone even noticed. From the look on her face, the HR lady seemed kind of sad and impressed at the same time (sapressed?) during my exit interview, but even she was mostly unphased.

My job wasn’t as high pressured as a surgeon or an air traffic controller. A lot of the stress that was involved was due to it being an environment that tended to put everything at a this is essential level. But it was hard and I worked hard at it and I did feel essential. Too essential to turn my phone off; too essential to take a day off.

But I wasn’t too essential to take a day off. And with the exception of very few people and very few jobs, probably neither are you. At least not like you think you are. We can take a day – or even two, good grief! – to be sick or “be sick” because I guarantee, we’re making up for it on the days that we’re there.

Invest in you, and your sustainability as a professional, and your health as a human being and whatever else makes you feel justified in taking the time that you’ve earned. Because you have earned it and you can learn from a recent exit interview graduate: There’s no adult attendance award and you can’t take it with you.

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