How to overcome sick-day guilt

By Kai Conibear,
updated on Sep 12, 2021

How to overcome sick-day guilt

It’s the phone call we all dread – letting your employer know you need a day off sick. But when your body is telling you it needs a break, it’s time to listen. So, how do we get past the guilt, to get the rest we need to recuperate?

We all know the feeling; you’ve woken up feeling terrible. You’re too sick to work, but there’s something in the pit of your stomach that stops you from making that call to your boss. You sit there watching the clock – you might even start getting ready to go in or log on – putting off a decision you know you have to make. You don’t want people to think you can’t cope with the job. You feel bad about colleagues having to cover your work, and don’t want to make life more difficult for anyone else. You’re worried that you might be judged for calling in sick, and it’ll affect performance reviews or your chances of that promotion. Then there are the questions we ask ourselves: “If everyone else can cope without taking time off, why can’t I?”

When we’re ill, we often give in to the pressure to carry on working –whether that’s a perceived external pressure, or the expectations and standards we set for ourselves. It’s easy to fall into this trap when we have deadlines to meet, work on commission, or have a team that relies on us. Whether it’s a physical or mental illness, pressure to keep going can make us feel 10 times worse. But it’s time to put that unnecessary guilt in its place – here are four things to help you do just that.

1. Be honest with yourself

I asked life coach Clare Percival how to overcome sick-day guilt. Her thoughts? “I would ask, where does that guilty voice stem from? Is it a parent, a boss, or just a limiting belief that somehow we think we are supposed to be super human rather than listening to our body?”

"Being honest with yourself that you need a break can make you stronger, and healthier, in the long run"

We need to learn to be vulnerable, and to show that we’re not OK – even if our inner critic doesn’t like it. But the truth is it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Being honest with yourself that you need a break can make you stronger, and healthier, in the long run. Convincing ourselves we must go into work, that we’re letting people down, that we’re letting ourselves down, avoids focusing on the real issue. Plus, hiding behind a mask can be exhausting – and it’s bound to slip at some point. Clare sums it up: “Listen to your body. It knows what is best, and it is trying to tell you something important.”

2. Reevaluate your goals and workload

If you’re unwell, but believe that a sick-day is out of the question because you can’t possibly miss a day of work, it could be time to take a closer look at what’s on your plate. The world shouldn’t stop if you need a day or two to recover, and if it feels like it will, it might even be the level of responsibility on your plate contributing to your poor health.

Ask yourself: is what I want to do realistic? Will I burn out, or make myself ill trying to achieve it? Am I setting myself up for disappointment if I don’t reach my goal? Or is it a case of realistic goals, but overwhelming myself by trying to achieve too many things all at once? If the answer is yes to any of these, it could be worth reevaluating whether pushing yourself like this is worth it – more often than not, the answer will be no. And if that’s the case, it could be time to speak to your boss, HR, or colleagues about your workload and any support you need. Working until you burn out shouldn’t be a goal, or something that should earn anyone praise. Our number one goal should be to stay healthy.


3. We all struggle

Deep down, everyone struggles for one reason or another, whether they like to admit it or not. Looking like you’re always keeping it together isn’t reality. Everyone has a persona they try to keep up, to an extent. If you live with a chronic illness, a disability, or both, it can feel like sick-days come around more than your colleagues, and guilt could be a factor in whether you take that much-needed day off. But it’s important to remember that everyone will have a time when they struggle mentally, physically, or both. And when that voice of self-doubt rises up, just consider, would you judge someone else for needing a sick-day? Treat yourself with that same compassion you’d show your colleagues.

4. It’s not a sign of weakness

Most of us have worked with an ‘office gossip’. They love to let everyone know how you were off last week, again. These words make us feel ashamed, guilty, and inadequate. But just because you feel unwell, it doesn’t make you weak-minded.

“When you’re not feeling 100%, your inner critic voice kicks in – the negative self-talk that feeds off a poorly you, and has been lying dormant waiting for a moment to come out and play in your mind, and tell you those guilty thoughts,” Clare Percival explains. Taking time off shows you value your health and your colleagues. It’s the responsible thing to do, especially if you’re potentially infectious or your job involves caring for others. So, remember, listening to your mind and body when it needs a breather isn’t just for your own benefit, it’s the most selfless thing you can do.

To connect with a life coach like Clare to discuss feelings of guilt or difficulty finding a work-life balance, visit lifecoach-directory.org.uk

By Kai Conibear

Kai Conibear is a writer and mental health advocate. His first book, ‘Living at the Speed of Light’, about bipolar disorder, is out now.'

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