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The Stigma of Taking a Sick Day

The science behind recovery time away from work and why it’s so important.

Key points

  • Often, the pressure to not take time off is self-imposed, despite managers encouraging it.
  • There are four key elements of recovery time: control, mastery, psychological detachment, and relaxation.
  • Recovery time should happen every day. Saving it for scheduled vacation time isn’t close to enough.
PeopleImages/Getty Images
Source: PeopleImages/Getty Images

Earlier this year, I got sick. It wasn’t COVID-19, fortunately, but it was a nasty cold that knocked me out for a full week of work.

As I recovered, I was surprised at how guilty I felt! All sorts of unhealthy thoughts ran through my head; people would think that I was faking being sick or wasn’t committed to my work. And I still had these feelings despite my manager having explicitly told me to rest because work could wait, and my team could step up to support where needed.

I realise these anxious thoughts were entirely self-driven. I found it incredibly difficult to accept that I was legitimately not supposed to work because I was sick.

As other coworkers have fallen ill, perhaps due to the easing of social restrictions, I’ve watched them experience similar feelings. They were finding it hard to not respond to messages or not attend certain meetings, despite clearly being sick.

It’s not just concerning sick leave. I’ve seen people on parental leave who log on a month ahead of their return because they were “trying to get ahead of emails.” Others on holiday committed to staying connected, even stating in their out-of-office response that they would “check emails at 5 pm every day.”

Sadly, this isn’t an unusual response. As a society, we often feel obliged to push ourselves as hard as we can in terms of our work capacity. And, in my experience, this isn’t coming from manager expectations. Managers are actually telling employees to log off—but employees don’t want to.

Healthy Work Engagement ss. Pathway to Burnout

In psychological terms, this is a case-in-point of the tension between healthy work engagement (a positive state, being motivated by your work) and a pathway to burnout (a negative state, being fed up and tired).

We can all agree that a healthy, positive state is better for individuals and society as a whole. But what keeps us away from burnout? It is the thing that we are finding so difficult to do—taking what psychologists call recovery time.

Characteristics of Recovery Time

Recovery time, put simply, is nonworking time. What exactly people choose to do will depend on the individual, but research by Sabine Sonnentag, one of the leading experts on the topic, has identified four distinct characteristics of recovery time:

  • Control: a choice of how the time is spent.
  • Mastery: an element of learning or improving a skill.
  • Psychological detachment: a complete disconnect from work.
  • Relaxation: little-to-no physical or mental exertion.

Activities for Recovery Time

These characteristics may combine in different experiences and ultimately have a different positive effect, depending on the type of job stress. For instance, a workday with lots of unexpected roadblocks will require more psychological detachment than a day at work that is simply very busy. Therefore, it is important to have a broad range of activities used for recovery time. Examples might be the following:

  • Going to the gym (control, mastery, psychological detachment)
  • Watching your favourite TV show (control, psychological detachment, relaxation)
  • Sleep (psychological detachment, relaxation)
  • Spending time with friends (psychological detachment, relaxation)
  • Informal or formal education (control, mastery)

Taking time to do the above will keep people more motivated and productive at work. This might seem obvious, but research (and my personal experience) would show it is much easier said than done!

It is a curiosity of human beings that we sometimes avoid what we need the most. In the case of burnout, this reluctance to take a break when we need to has been coined “the recovery paradox.” When our jobs are at their most intense and we most need to take a break is exactly when we feel least inclined to take a break.

In fact, we tend to think that we can “save up” recovery time for when we’re on vacation. But this is another fallacy. The positive impact of taking recovery time can come the next day after taking it. The benefit lies in taking shorter recovery times in the evenings after work as well as over the weekend.

Tips for Detaching From Work

Here are some tips that have helped me regularly detach from work when I needed to:

  • Marking nonworking time in calendars. I have my working and nonworking hours marked in my calendar so that people can see when I am not available.
  • Committing to my nonnegotiables. I will very rarely forgo my gym classes on two evenings a week. If work ends up dragging into my evenings, I make sure I go to the gym anyway, then come back and tidy up any loose ends.
  • No notifications on my phone for work messages. I turned them off years ago.
  • Scheduling nonwork activities. Having concrete plans where I have to be somewhere with other people is a great way to force a detachment from work.
  • Setting realistic expectations. Gone are the days when every item on our to-do lists will be finished before signing off for the day. Don’t expect yourself to have to get everything done before resting—there’s always tomorrow.
  • Trying to remember that business will survive without me. What if you got sick and couldn’t come in tomorrow? The world would keep turning, and business would keep moving.

Recovery time is, as Sonnentag quite frankly puts it, “necessary to prevent an ongoing deterioration in mood and performance.” The science and the research are very clear here: If you wish to be a better employee, colleague, friend, family member, or just all-around human being, you must take your recovery time, and you must take it regularly.

References

Bakker, A. B., Schaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P., & Taris, T. W. (2008). Work engagement: An emerging concept in occupational health psychology. Work & stress, 22(3), 187-200.

Sonnentag, S., & Fritz, C. (2007). The Recovery Experience Questionnaire: development and validation of a measure for assessing recuperation and unwinding from work. Journal of occupational health psychology, 12(3), 204.

Bennett, A. A., Bakker, A. B., & Field, J. G. (2018). Recovery from work-related effort: A meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(3), 262–275. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2217

Sonnentag, S. (2018). The recovery paradox: Portraying the complex interplay between job stressors, lack of recovery, and poor well-being. Research in Organizational Behavior, 38, 169-185.

Sonnentag, S. (2003). Recovery, work engagement, and proactive behavior: a new look at the interface between nonwork and work. Journal of applied psychology, 88(3), 518.

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