lifestyle

How the pandemic has changed how we feel about taking sick days


Do you feel less anxious about taking a sick day since the pandemic? (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)

The average number of sick days we are taking has almost doubled over the past year, according to a new study. 

The survey, conducted by online printing specialists instantprint, found the average number of sick days taken by UK employees across 2020 was four out of 256 possible working days – this figure had almost doubled from the 2019 figure of 2.6 days.

This dramatic increase highlights that although Brits are less likely to call in sick across the board, those who have needed time off this year have been taking a more extended break to recover from their illness.

But with illness the number one issue for the entire globe over the last year – thanks to living through a pandemic – how has it impacted our ability to talk to our bosses about our health, and take the time we need to recover?

Historically, many workers have reported feeling stress, anxiety and guilt when it comes to asking for a day off work for illness – even when they have a really legitimate reason.

According to a 2019 survey by Love Energy Savings, 80% of British employees admit to working through sickness, rising to 92% for 19-24 year-olds. The main reason people give is not wanting to let their colleagues down.

The pressure is heightened by the prevalence of hustle culture, which glamorises busyness and presents  constant work and exertion as the only route to success in the modern world.

But the pandemic is flipping all of that on its head.

A year of unprecedented anxiety, instability and new routines has lead many people to form new priorities. And self-care seems to be much higher on the list. Which may account for why more people are taking sick days.

‘I just don’t have the capacity to suffer through the working day if I’m not feeling 100% any more,’ says Emily, a 29-year-old marketing assistant from Manchester.

People report feeling less pressure from bosses to work when sick. (Credits: Getty/fStop)

‘I used to feel horrible guilt calling in sick – even when I was feeling really awful. I think we have all been so conditioned to just power through. But with the pandemic and the stresses associated with that, I have just decided to be kinder to myself and take the time I need. No job is worth jeopardising my health for.’

A third (30%) of employees said they don’t feel any pressure to go to work when they’re sick since the Covid pandemic hit. Positively, this number has doubled since 2019, when just 15% of UK workers said they never feel pressure from bosses when calling in sick. 

Interestingly though, more than a fifth (22%) said it would ‘take a lot’ for them to take a sick day, even in the wake of the pandemic.  

A fifth (21%) shared that they are now less likely to call in sick, only doing so for a more serious illness.

Flexible working might be the root cause of this. Without the pressure to suffer through a long commute, and sit in an office all day with your colleagues, more people are likely to work through more mild illnesses.

This is particularly helpful for people with chronic illness like Laura, a journalist who lives in London.

‘Working from home makes me way less likely to take a sick day, mainly because I don’t need to as much,’ says Laura.

‘Now that I’m at home, I find with things like my diabetes and my Ménière’s disease, it has to be really bad for me to take a day off.

‘WFH means I can work from the sofa, have more energy for just doing the work and if I am feeling a bit off, I can take a nap at lunch. Flexibility makes such a huge, huge difference to bad days.’

Laura adds that often, the illnesses and bugs she used to get were actually picked up from commuting and being in the office with so many people, because she has a weakened immune system.

‘This has been the longest I’ve gone without catching any cold or flu in years, and the first winter that I can remember that I haven’t had to have multiple doses of antibiotics,’ she says.

‘I know that going back to an office full-time would make so much of that disappear, and I would be back to the same problems with getting sick.

‘I’d like to really hope that offices will be more flexible with allowing people who do have a cold or something minor to just WFH for a few days to stop it spreading around the office.’

We do have to be wary though of working through illness while we are at home. It’s still important to take time off to recover even if you’re not actually in the office.

Denise Jennings, head of HR at RotaCloud says: ‘It’s really important to take sick days if you’re ill, even if you’re working from home.

‘Just because it might feel slightly easier to suffer through the day working on your laptop on the sofa, than it would if you had to face a commute into the office, it doesn’t mean you should have to.’

Denise says that if you’re sick, you’re sick, regardless of where you are – so you should be resting and focusing on getting better.

‘We have a huge problem with presenteeism in the UK though, with employees coming into work when they’re ill because of worry or a lack of job security,’ she adds. ‘But staff should never feel remotely guilty about taking time off work for rest and recuperation — and this is something that employers need to actively tackle.’

Angela Hunter, from instantprint, said it was really encouraging to see the significant drops in numbers surrounding pressure felt by UK employees when calling in sick. 

‘As a business, we believe that our employees’ health and wellbeing is an integral part of a happy and healthy workforce,’ she says. ‘We’ve seen that the pandemic has especially impacted mental health and our team has benefited from having qualified mental health first-aiders on hand to support them during this difficult time. 

‘We would encourage any business to ensure their staff feel 100% comfortable about taking a day off for rest and recovery when required, without feeling any pressure to do the opposite.’

Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you.

Get in touch: metrolifestyleteam@metro.co.uk


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