Judging from how often “food poisoning” is used as a sick day excuse, either most of us are eating too many meals from dodgy food trucks, or we’re fibbing at least some of the time. If you’re dealing with a condition that doesn’t exactly fall into the traditional category of illness, but still impairs your ability to work — like a raging case of PMS, a rough bout of insomnia, or heartache following a break-up — “food poisoning” is a perfect cover to take a day off to recover and recharge.
Last week, however, a woman named Madalyn Parker, who works as a web developer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, opted for total honesty in an out-of-office email to her coworkers: “Hey Team, I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.” Just as admirable as her candour was her boss Ben Congleton’s generous reply: “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health — I can’t believe this is not a standard practice at all organizations.”
Parker posted their exchange on social media and thousands shared it and praised the two, very rightly so, for being advocates for mental health care. Even though our society has come a long way towards greater openness about mental illness, most people wouldn’t have been as courageous as Parker, and most bosses wouldn’t be as understanding as Congleton. There’s still too much ignorance and prejudice.
Their compassionate example aside, though, Parker’s frankness about her mental health raises an important question: Why do we have to explain our need for a sick day, at all? An employer isn’t a prison warden or a parent. If workplaces permit employees to take a set number of sick days each month, what does it matter what they’re used for? Not every employee has the same needs — one may be suffering from panic attacks, another helping their parent move into a nursing home, another recovering from a terrible head cold. Provided an employee can catch up on their work, or have someone else fill in to help them out, it seems reasonable to simply say, “I need to take a day off,” and not feel pressure to share the reason.
But in a precarious economy, and at a time when we feel captive to email and texts, work frequently seeps into our personal lives to the point where it feels like we can’t ever be weak, or have limits. Busyness has become something to brag about, and taking time off for anything less than the bubonic plague is seen as a lack of loyalty and commitment. If we can’t always be “100 percent,” we better have a very good justification for it.
An example of how far the personal-professional boundary has shifted appeared in an recent New York Times interview with Erika Nardini, CEO of the website Barstool Sports. Asked about her hiring process, she said, “If you’re in the process of interviewing with us, I’ll text you about something at 9 p.m. or 11 a.m. on a Sunday just to see how fast you’ll respond.” If it takes longer than three hours to reply, the candidate won’t make the cut. Nardini’s practice sounds more like a power trip than a sound recruitment strategy. Can you imagine asking a boss like her for a “mental health day”?
Nardini is an extreme example, but there’s a reason why we have an epidemic of “food poisoning.” Even if an employer is supportive, an employee may not feel it’s appropriate or comfortable to divulge private details about their health status — whether they have an anxiety disorder, issues with infertility, supremely heavy periods or chronic bladder infections. Most of us don’t want to be that intimate with the person who signs our paycheque. (I suspect a lot of managers don’t want to know that much personal information about their employees, either.) Nor do we always have it in us to be an advocate for self-care. It’s punishing enough to manage an illness — harder still to then become a spokesperson for a cause.
And there can be real risk in disclosing medical conditions. Labour laws may protect employees from being fired for being sick, or for having a particular medical condition, like alcoholism or depression. But that doesn’t mean a worker won’t be penalized in other ways — like being overlooked for promotions or special projects because their employer believes they can’t handle more responsibilities.
A more revolutionary approach to talking about sick days is not to expect employees to talk about them at all. People could request a day off when they really need one, without feeling like they have to be explicit about why. And instead of calling them sick days, why not keep them as “personal days” and let them be just that: personal.