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Why does taking a sick day send us into an anxiety spiral?

Whether our health is suffering in response to the covid vaccine (or perhaps even the dreaded virus itself) or our kids have brought back lurgies a few weeks into returning to school, it can feel difficult taking time off work to recover (no matter how desperately it may be needed).

Although the anxiety-inducing thought of telling our boss we’re not well enough to work can make ploughing through (between coughing fits) a tempting alternative - it is possible to take a sick day (or week) without feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. In fact, taking sick days, when you need them, may not only help us to recover faster but could also help cultivate a culture of trust and wellbeing at our company. Imagine that, our sickness could be a force for good, no matter how bad it might be making us feel!

When we’re poorly, particularly if we’re working from home, it’s easy to succumb to pressure to persevere with work, no matter how lousy we’re feeling. We can be plagued by thoughts that taking a sick day means we’re letting our team down. Equally, we may feel stressed that time off means coming back to an even larger workload, or worry about how our sick day will affect how we’re perceived, with the potential to negatively affect our future career prospects. When our bodies are run down they more easily succumb to our most negative thoughts, fears and anxieties. Enter guilt for taking time off sick accompanied by spiralling anxiety about the (oft exaggerated) impact this is likely to have on our future work life. So how do we put a stop to these gnawing worries and take the time off we need to fully recover?

1. Communicate

The pressure to keep up appearances at work by presenting a professional version of ourselves, means we’re more likely to want to pretend that we’re well when we’re not. Because being ill isn’t deemed professional we can often try and hide away under makeup, smart clothing or caffeine shots. It’s understandable, we don’t want our ability to do the job questioned or our personal lives picked apart - but we’re actually more likely to stir suspicion by hiding the truth about our health from our colleagues.

Instead, communicate what’s going on for you - whether that’s needing to attend inconveniently-timed medical appointments, having to take time off to recover, or taking a new medication that has a temporary impact on your performance. By being open and honest in our communication, we dispel suspicion about our loyalty to the role before it’s even born. This also makes it easier for you and your boss to create a plan for how to move forward, whether it’s a short-term fix (taking a day off) or a longer-term solution (adapting your work tasks to support a long-term health condition).

2. Reframe your relationship with work

Perhaps sickness has struck at a particularly bad time, or maybe our workload is consistently jam-packed, but if we ask ourselves is the company going to crumble if I miss a few days? The answer is it’s unlikely. If work takes centre-stage in our lives it’s easy to fall victim to the fallacy that our company needs us, when actually, if we too-tightly bind our sense of self to our profession, it can become the other way around.

In moments where you're unable to work because you’re unwell, remind yourself you are inherently worthy no matter how productive you are (or aren't). Remind yourself of the people whose lives you enrich - simply by existing, or hobbies you enjoy that make living feel all the more sweeter. You are so much more than your productive output and a few days off shouldn’t shake your confidence in that.

Conversely, if your workplace is likely to grind to a halt without you there, then it’s worth considering if your workload is exacerbating your ill-health. If this is the case, being sick can actually present an opportunity for you to listen to your body and (once you're feeling a little better) work with your team to try and redress the balance; so that your workload is manageable and even delegatable in the event of future sickness.

3. Practice self-love

Subconsciously we ingest a lot of myths about illness through our culture. We can often think that being sick makes us weak, idle or uncommitted - or at least worry that this is what others may be thinking about us. The way we use language around illness reflects this; we say we’re going to ‘soldier on’ (valiantly) or ‘persevere’ - as though being ill is a test of strength in the face of adversity.

As COVID-19 has made startlingly clear, the truth of the matter is we are all vulnerable to illness. It often takes more strength of character to pause, rest and recuperate than it does to grin and bear it (and likely produce sub-par work in the process). It’s an act of self-love to take time when you need it and not punish yourself by doing so. Focus your thoughts on healing, as opposed to chastising yourself for being human (and therefore prone to illness).

The research

Researchers say that presenteeism (being at work whilst ill) can cut productivity by a third or more [1]. So, taking time off when you’re really too poorly to work, can actually be considered an act of integrity. It’s a way of demonstrating your commitment to producing consistently excellent work instead of just muddling through.

What’s more is that when you prioritise your health over the demands of your work, you also subconsciously give your colleagues permission to do the same. This can have a drastic impact on your workplace culture, by encouraging honesty and transparency around illness you’re likely to foster a greater sense of trust and reciprocity at work.


Final thoughts: So the next time you're relying on Lemsip, nasal spray and a dangerous amount of caffeine to get you through work, try taking a step back, listening to what your body needs and rest! You'll feel better in no time.


  1. Health, absence, disability, and presenteeism cost estimates (2004). Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.




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