Taking a Sick Day – A Guide for Perfectionist Professional Women

It seems like many of us are feeling a bit under the weather right about now. I have had my share of coughs and colds over the past few years, but the last time I remember actually ‘giving in’ to a sick week when I was recovering from an operation in hospital. It was in the first year of my business and I recall feeling so enraged I couldn’t do anything – I had brought along a pile of ‘good intentions’ reading, but even that felt too much. Turns out I’m not the only perfectionist professional woman out there who avoids sick leave for fear of getting behind on my work or letting someone else down. But how good is that actually for us? Or our team?

According to a survey detailed in Stylist magazine, women are 10% more likely to feel that work is more important than their long-term health – which conversely could account for the fact that we take more sick leave (189 days over a 38 year career, compared to men’s 140). I certainly identify with the practice of keeping going through the sniffles until I am virtually bedridden – which of course takes me longer to recover from than if I had given myself a day or two off initially!

And again, it seems Brits are not alone in this ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude we have towards our health. A Danish survey found that those workers who repeatedly came to work ill were 53% more likely to end up being signed off work for a fortnight than those who had taken less sick leave when their health started to deteriorate.

There are other good reasons women need to take more time off for illness – we simply have more ‘moving parts’ that can cause problems. Including period pains, problems during pregnancy or IVF, urinary tract infections or thrush, there are certain conditions which don’t affect men at all or to the same degree. If you add the fact that mothers are more likely than fathers to take a sick day themselves to care for a child, it’s not at all surprising women take more sick leave over a lifetime of work. Socially, the more senior a person is, the likelier it is they can work flexibly and say they are working from home rather than take a sick day – something again that more men benefit from simply because they are more likely to be in these senior roles that people don’t question.

So how does all this presenteeism affect us – and those on our team? Interestingly, the Work Foundation found that the more time someone spends ‘powering through’ at work while being ill, the lower fellow employees and their managers rated their office performance. I know we do it for the best off intentions, but of the 71% of respondents who worried their absence would impact badly on their colleagues, a whopping 68% of those were women.

A Benenden Health Report in 2011 also found that 37% of British employees would prefer colleagues not to come in if sick, rather than ‘soldier on’ for the good of the team. And avoid reading emails too when you are under the weather. I recall once receiving some bad news when I was sick and flicking through my messages. I then felt worse, but not up to the task of coherently drafting an astute reply – which left me all the more frustrated.

Clearly, we are worried about people who don’t want us to come in if it means we will perform poorly and are likely to be infectious! Do yourself and your team a favour – take the sick day or two you need.  As humbling as it can feel for professional women, the world will not end.

For more statistics, research and advice for female breadwinners get the book Female Breadwinners; How They Make Relationships Work and Why They Are The Future Of the Modern Workforce buy online here or from Amazon.

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