Taking Sick Days

My earliest memories of staying home sick are from elementary school, when I would pretend to be ill to avoid going to school – I was bullied a lot and hated going. My parents caught on pretty quick. For the rest of my upbringing, an air of suspicion clung to any claims that I was sick and needed to stay home. I think that I internalized this suspicion. When combined with my tendency to over-identify with my work (common among adult millenials), it’s led me to feeling guilty about taking time off for illness.

You’re supposed to stay home when you’re sick. It helps you get better and it helps your coworkers stay healthy. And I would stay home when sick. I would just always feel guilty about it. That wasn’t great for my mental health (especially when I had to stay home sick because of my mental health). Yikes.

Anyway, this was kind of the status quo until two years ago, when I received Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as treatment for depression. I finally had the tools to monitor myself for negative self-talk, and I noticed this guilt about staying home. And worse, I realized that I’d been externalizing this guilt.

When I’d tell my team I was home sick, I would apologize – as if I’d done something wrong. Apologizing doesn’t really describe how over-the-top I was being. I realized that I needed to stop this because I was becoming a leader at Artsy, and leaders need to set an example. If I were acting as if staying home was bad, then that sends a message to everyone around me that this attitude is acceptable and appropriate – and it is neither. So I addressed the problem at the source, using my CBT skills to interrupt the loops of that negative self talk. And that’s gone pretty well (but as always, remains an in-progress effort).

For months, I’d been meaning to write a blog post about this, to reflect on the importance of setting a positive example in your relationship to your work. Then I saw this tweet, which explains things more succinctly than I ever could:

The only thing I’d expand on is: this advice isn’t just for managers. This is applicable to anyone with institutional authority on a team: tech leads, senior engineers… basically anyone who cares about the culture of their team and has authority to act on that caring. Your actions set the barometer for acceptable and normal behaviour on your team. If you want people to take care of themselves, then you’ve got to take care of your self, too.

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