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women looking sick with scarf around her nose

So you’ve tried those wellness practices to stay healthy this cold and flu season. But alas, some germ finally brought you down! It seems like this shouldn’t require an explanation, but every year, without fail, people bring their coughs, sniffles, and influenza to the office—even when they are in a staff position with paid sick days. 

According to a report from NPR, of workers who had not used all or most of their sick days, more than 73% said they hadn’t used them because they “weren’t sick enough.” Does this reluctance to use allotted sick time come from a place of overwhelm, martyrdom, or somewhere else? Regardless of the reason, we need to talk about using this benefit when we need it. 

It’s worth noting that offices that don’t offer paid sick days are another conversation altogether—this article is geared toward folks who have access to paid sick leave.

Why does it matter?

  • Sick leave doesn’t get paid out in most states. This is a benefit you earned—so use it! Unlike paid vacation days, employers in most states in the United States do not have to pay out accrued sick days, so this is a “use it or lose it” situation. 
  • When you go to work sick, you get other people sick. This includes folks who may be immunocompromised, or live with people who are more susceptible to illness. A cold might feel like nothing for you, but for people with other health issues, a cold can mean serious illness and a long recovery time.
  • You recover faster when you rest! We’ve all done it—pushed through when we shouldn’t have and paid for it later. Felt like we were getting better, so carried on with all our usual activities, only to realize afterward that we totally overdid it. The value of rest can’t be overstated. 
  • You’re not doing your best work. Being sick makes us fuzzy-brained, forgetful, and sometimes downright unpleasant to be around. Is it better to go to work for five days at 50% of your usual level of awesome, or miss two days and return at 100% for the remaining three? “Butt in chair” presenteeism is a scourge. 
  • You can create culture change. When our boss and colleagues never take a sick day, there can be an invisible pressure for us not to use sick days, either. But peer pressure can be positive or negative, and you can do everyone around you a favor if you lead by example and use those sick days when you’re sick!

But ... how?

Most of us feel like there’s always so much to do at work. How can you stay home when you need to without feeling like you’re falling behind?

  • Maintain your calendar so other people can access it. Just because you’re sick doesn’t mean you want to drop the ball. When you keep your calendar up to date and visible to your teammates, other people can help keep things smooth while you recover and make sure there aren’t any gaps in covering essential duties.
  • Let your boss and colleagues know. Especially if there is anything on your calendar that needs to be rescheduled or cancelled, it’s important that other people in the office can help provide good customer service. 
  • Put on your “out of office” auto-responder. No need to go into detail. A simple “I’m out sick today, thanks for your patience. If you need immediate assistance, please call the office at (NUMBER) or email (COLLEAGUE)” should do the trick. This will help people understand why you’re not responding and might take a few days to get back to them, which hopefully helps allay any work-piling-up anxieties you might feel. 
  • Let (some) things go. When you’re doing world-changing work that directly affects the lives of others, everything can feel like it’s too important to let go. Triage what’s really critical and time sensitive. The rest of it can wait and will still be there when you get back to your office.
  • Feel your feelings. Many of us feel guilty when we call in sick because we know how it can burden our colleagues. It’s OK to feel your feelings, and then recognize that it is temporary, not your fault, and the guilt you feel doesn’t need to be validated.
  • Be a team player when other people in the office are out sick. Part of changing an office culture to one that prioritizes health and taking care of ourselves is having teammates and supervisors who genuinely mean it when they say, “Don’t worry, we’ve got this, feel better.” Lead by example when someone else is out sick and lend a hand with any work that really can’t wait.

The takeaway

Taking sick time when you need it can be challenging in an environment where there are not enough staff or resources to cover an absence. But if we continue to put our health at risk to cover those resource shortfalls, we’re perpetuating the idea that an under-resourced system or organization can continue on the sacrifices of its staff. 

For the sake of everyone served by the nonprofit sector—the people who work within it, and the critical missions into which we invest our time and energy—we have a responsibility to say “no” when a system has been stretched too thin. If it feels like you’ll never catch up again if you take the sick day(s) you need, it might be time to advocate for yourself and have a difficult conversation with organizational leaders about the level of capacity in your team.


Do you feel guilty about taking sick leave? Or does your employer encourage you to take time off when you need it? Share your experience with us on social media.

Ashley Fontaine profile image

Ashley Fontaine

Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.

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