Opinion Americans need to get better at taking sick days

(Luci Gutiérrez for The Washington Post)
(Luci Gutiérrez for The Washington Post)

My regular editor is off this week because she has contracted covid-19. And I’m glad for her.

Well, not glad about the covid — we may have vaccines and Paxlovid now, but I wouldn’t wish that still-mysterious disease on anyone.

Yet the actual taking of a few sick days, even while working remotely? That I respect. Because doing so has become unusual, even though in reality it’s more necessary than ever.

Americans have never been good at taking time off, but covid seems to have stolen our ability to do so. Two-plus years of a pandemic have made it so that we are all highly aware of the possibility of illness, but we have stopped respecting its demands.

Even as covid swept through the nation, workers haven’t taken more sick days than they did before. In a survey of large employers cited recently by the New York Times, benefits consulting firm Mercer found that non-hourly workers used only half of their allotted sick days in 2021, a number almost identical to that in the pre-pandemic year of 2018. A survey conducted by Harvard’s Shift Project in the fall found that 65 percent of hourly low-wage workers who reported being sick went in anyway.

This could have been our moment to reconsider an unhealthy norm, but somehow we’re as bad as ever. “Working through it” has become the default — even for those lucky enough to have the option not to.

How did this happen?

The underlying conditions, as it were, are easy to identify — both the psychological and the material.

Follow Christine Emba's opinionsFollow

The United States is famously obsessed with productivity, from the Protestant work ethic of our Puritan ancestors to the Horatio Alger stories we continue to see as aspirational rather than as the fantasies they are. Our dog-eat-dog form of capitalism activates a constant, underlying fear of replacement — if we’re not visibly working, someone else might swoop in and steal our job.

We are one of the few nations that do not guarantee paid sick leave by law, meaning that the ability to take time off to care for oneself is still regarded as a privilege rather than a right. And then, of course, there’s a condition shared with most of the modern world — a lack of boundaries between work and life, engendered first by the prevalence of email and then by the smartphone.

Covid made all of this worse.

As many of us dispersed to work from home, our employment became even more liminal and enmeshed. It’s not just email and phone; now it’s Slack and Zoom. We weren’t going into the office and stopping work to leave for home at night; instead, work and home became one and the same, with no stops in between.

And as we learned how much we could push through — tragedy, fear, languishing — we felt compelled to push through even more. We learned to work in quarantine: Not being there in person didn’t mean you couldn’t produce. We were reassured by higher-ups that “keeping things going” was a sign of bravery and dedication in a hard time. “Out of office” is our default state now, but the work must still be done.

Christine Emba: Everyone is tired. We need to give ourselves an actual break.

Add to that the fact that while illness used to engender at least a little sympathy, these days we feel more guilt than anything else. Before covid, calling in sick could be justified by a concern for spreading germs to our colleagues. But for those lucky enough to be in the Zooming class, that is no longer an excuse — the question now is just how ill we have to be before we literally can’t open the computer. (In polls, nearly two-thirds of workers suggest that remote work has brought added pressure to work while sick.)

We don’t want to be a burden to our colleagues. We don’t want to burn through whatever limited time off we do get (if we’re lucky). And even if we do feel sick, we’re surrounded by a pandemic — couldn’t it be so much worse?

Here’s the thing. It could be, but we don’t have to personally make it so by neglecting to attend to our legitimate needs. Rather than pushing the limits further and further out, this could be a time to bring them in.

At the very least, we need the space to heal and recover when sick. And we shouldn’t stop there — we need space and at least a few moments untethered from our jobs. In a moment when life and work have bled into one undifferentiated, weekendless morass, we have ever more need for a hard stop — some excuse to rest without the fear or guilt that have become our constant companions. But employers aren’t likely to suggest that we slow down. We’ll have to make the decision to do so ourselves.

Way back in 2020, there were hopeful suggestions that the pandemic might teach us something about balance. We thought, perhaps optimistically, that this would be the moment to reimagine a better world. But our propensity to work through illness suggests that rather than learning new lessons, we’re entrenching ourselves further into our old bad norms.