Is Remote Work a Plague on the Traditional Sick Day?

The advent of remote work is bringing the traditional sick day to a close, according to Steven Kurutz, a columnist at the New York Times. In his article, “The Death of the Sick Day,” Kurutz muses over the transition of a sick day from one of rest and recovery to a day at home where you’re free to tackle emails, hop on conference calls, answer questions, and check in throughout the day. Whether this is the final demise of the sick day remains to be seen, but as Bob Dylan once sang, “the times, they are a-changin’.”

How Remote Work and Technology Are Changing the Sick Day

Smartphones and the internet have been the main catalysts of the changing sick day. When you’re waiting in the doctor’s office or you’re in line at the pharmacy, your idle hands get a bit restless. Instead of waiting patiently to receive a diagnosis or get your prescription, you’re answering emails and keeping up with the workload.

In Mr. Kurutz’s article, he discusses the sick day with a remote worker who recently came down with the flu. Instead of getting plenty of fluids and rest, she used the remote platform Slack to interact with co-workers until she physically couldn’t take it anymore. The fear of falling behind and feeling dispensable to employers was enough to keep her behind a laptop. This is a scary precedent in the remote-working field, and one that has little upside and plenty of downside to an ill worker.

However, many companies with remote workers have transformed their sick day policy into something called “personal emergency days.” While it may seem overly dramatic, this approach actually provides a modicum of privacy for employees. They no longer need to explain the severity of the illness, keeping their medical records, mental health, or other potential stigmas private.

What the Lack of Sick Days Means for the Remote Worker

With “personal emergency days,” workers are free to take a day off without ridicule, whether the issue is a hangover or a sore throat. There’s no one around to judge you for not being at work or refusing to answer calls or emails.

Before remote work, many employees still felt the ire of their employers in these scenarios. This prompted them to come to work, even if it meant infecting other employees or customers. Not only was this a poor business practice, but it put plenty of people at risk with the same fear of being seen as dispensable for missing a day of work. And this was even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oddly enough, the fear of missing work isn’t universal, especially in Europe. While European workers are industrious, their sick leave benefits far outweigh that of their American counterparts. In some positions in the Netherlands, employees can receive up to 70 percent of their salary over two years if they’re ill. That doesn’t mean that the Dutch are abusing the system, but it’s certainly something you won’t find in the U.S. all that often.

That said, Kurutz goes on to write that there’s a certain privilege in taking sick days, simply because it’s possible to work from your bed. While that undermines the severity of the illness and the privacy of the employee, it’s a reality that remote workers may have to accept in the near future.

The Benefits of Working at Home When You’re Sick

When you have a temperature of 101 degrees, food sounds awful, and you can’t even keep down a cup of tea, your job is not your first priority. Yet working from home affords you benefits that cubicle dwellers and other on-the-job employees don’t have: the ability to get things done.

Being sick when you’re a telecommuter doesn’t often exempt you from many of the day-to-day emails and tasks that you’re used to tackling when you’re healthy. But that just might be your saving grace. Even as a sickly remote employee or contractor, you enjoy a variety of benefits that a sneezing, sniffling office worker doesn’t get.

Keeping Up with the Workload

One of the worst feelings as an employee is the anxiety and the fear of falling behind. If you go into work sick, you’re not at the top of your game. Your performance suffers. Typically, you spend most of the day procrastinating, waiting it out in the bathroom, or sitting in the breakroom. When you work at home, you can do the baseline amount of work necessary to keep yourself from falling too far behind.

By answering emails, checking in with clients via various communication platforms, or clerical tasks, you’re ready to get back to your regular routine. It may take a few days or a week to get back to where you need to be, but it’s far more beneficial than taking numerous days away from the job entirely.

Getting Some Rest

If you start to feel woozy or ill, there’s no shame in hitting the sack at home. Even if you just get an hour of shut-eye, you may find that you start to feel better. Checking your email every hour to keep up with your schedule doesn’t seem nearly as arduous when you take a nap when you need it.

Working in Comfort

There’s no need to put on a suit and tie or even a casual outfit when you’re a remote worker recovering from an illness. While teleconferencing and coworking spaces have mandated at least a loose dress code for remote workers, your sick day means you can sit back in a pair of sweats while you get to the daily grind. You can even set up your work station in bed or on the couch.

Enjoying a Bit of Peace and Quiet

As a remote or office worker, not every person you interact with is empathetic or sympathetic to your illness. You might tell these people that you have the flu, but it falls on deaf ears. Luckily, when you work from home, getting some peace and quiet is as easy as putting up an away status on your team collaboration software. This leaves you free to do the amount of work you’re capable of doing.

How to Take a Sick Day as a Remote Worker

Whether you have a “summer cold” or a more serious illness, taking a sick day as a remote worker isn’t the easiest thing to do. At a brick-and-mortar business, it is easy to call into human resources, grab a doctor’s note, and go on about your recovery. But in a remote working environment, many employers will expect a certain level of responsiveness and attention, even if they know you’re not feeling 100 percent.

A Basic Template for a Remote Sick Day

If you’re truly unable to perform your job and you’re a remote worker—not a freelancer—you can go through this basic format to inform your employers and still save face.

  • As soon as possible, send an email or call your employer. Whether it’s the night before or when you wake up, the sooner you draft an email, the more they’ll appreciate the gesture. It gives them time to reschedule meetings or find another employee to cover you for a short time.
  • Let them know when you’ll be available for work. It’s better to overestimate than to underestimate in this regard, and if you’re back to work before your quoted time, you’ll look like a hero.
  • Inquire or state as to whether you’re taking paid or unpaid leave. This is a huge distinction, and it’s usually determined in your employer’s policies.
  • Let them know if you can tackle small tasks. Even if it’s answering some emails or doing mundane clerical work, this knowledge can lift some weight off their shoulders.

How to Take a Sick Day as a Freelancer

Taking a sick day as a freelancer can be a terrifying proposition. The cutthroat nature of the business means your client will find another willing party if you’re unavailable for a few days. Right? Yet despite the perceived lack of job security in freelancing, try not to doubt your loyal clients. You might find it surprising how willing your clients are to work with you when you have an illness, especially if they value your work.

Eradicate the Doubt and Guilt

Everyone gets sick at one point or another, but it’s up to you to acknowledge when you need the day off—without giving in to guilt, dread, or doubts. Anxious thoughts accompanied by your strong work ethic will make you feel like you should keep working, but you need rest and relaxation to fully recoup. Eradicate the doubt and guilt by nurturing yourself—sometimes you just need a day off.

Prioritize Your Tasks

The best way to relieve your stress and recoup from an illness as a freelancer is to prioritize your tasks. This means that you may have to do a few hours work, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s worth the effort. Make a list of must-dos and can-waits, and make a concerted effort to get the must-dos done. Remember that you can always pull an all-nighter or double-up on work when you’re healthy.

Find a Freelancing Ally

Whether it’s through social media or networking, you should align yourself with a freelancing ally that you can call on for help. After you immerse yourself in the freelancing world, you’ll realize that most of your colleagues are willing to give you advice or offer their services if you’re unavailable. They may seem like your competition, but knowing a skilled freelancer at the right time can save you time, money, and frustration.

A sick day as a remote worker doesn’t need to cause anxiety if you’re prepared. And after this sick day fades into the distance, take solace. If you implemented the strategies above, you’ll be ready to tackle any future instance of the flu, cold, or plague, and come out on top, fully rested and recovered.


Do you have additional tips taking a sick day as a remote worker or freelancerConnect with Virtual Vocations on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn to share your advice. We’d love to hear from you! 

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