How to deal with feeling guilty about taking sick days

guilt shame Dec 12, 2016


Like me, I am sure you have had those days when you wake up feeling like your stomach is going to punish you for the seafood the night before, with a blocked nose with the realisation that the scratchy throat was actually “something” that an early night could not fix, or just feeling absolutely exhausted and you decide to call in sick?

Guilt or shame?

Then comes a feeling of guilt which manifests thoughts such as: “I should not be ill.” “I have got so much to do.” “People in my team will really annoyed that they have to overtake the one or the other task.”

According to psychologists, guilt is described as “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some wrong, offense, etc. whether real or imagined”. And it seems to originate in part as a result of evolution which has engrained within us that: Only if we are in a group are we able to survive, which means that we have to support each other…and if we don’t this feeling of guilt can kick in.

Or is it rather the feeling of shame? “I am not really good enough, I am weak because I am sick.” “What might the other people think of me? I might even get fired if I am sick too often. Or do they even believe me that I am feeling too bad to come to work?”

Shame – the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous done by oneself (or another) - I certainly know that I have experienced this.


Neither feeling is great – so a lot of people decide to rather not stay at home, despite their bodies (or mind) shouting out loud and clear that they need a rest and drag themselves into the office, often only to prove that they are strong and basically a superhuman who is not easily defeated by a silly cold! So unless you’re coughing your lungs out or end up in hospital you will still go the office. Sounds familiar?

Maybe you are one of the lucky few who does not find their minds going down this path. Because the more you push yourself when you’re feeling horrible – regardless if physically or mentally - the harder it’ll be to excel at your job, or you might find that the 3rd cold this year you braved through was the herald of something much more serious – how many burn outs have you seen recently?

How to stay at home...and sane

So when you have decided to take a day or two off, how can you deal with those familiar feelings?

1.Don’t apologize. Just inform. If you are sick, you are sick. We can all catch this winter virus or the stomach flu from our kids. KIDS – love them, but they are walking factories of germs and bacteria. If your body (or your mind) tells you to take a rest, do it! Why be so self-destructive and harm your health even more by going to work? Be kind to yourself. That does not require an apology. Nor an over explanation. Just stick to the minimum information you have to give. Oversharing sounds like you have to justify yourself for being ill. And you don’t. Also, by NOT going into a crowded office space when you are spurting your own germs all over the place will in fact limit the potential negative impact your organisation will suffer if you infect the 20 other people who also have projects to deliver.

2. Cover your basics: Write this e-mail to the people who need to know, e.g. your team and ask for help when it comes to things that really (and urgently) need to be done. Ask yourself beforehand though if they are really urgent. Maybe a deadline can be postponed. Cancel or postpone meetings – just write a couple of mails to organize that. But if you can barely raise your head off the pillow, then tell one person and get them to tell everyone else.

You are familiar with the out-of-office reply? Then use it for sick days. If you feel bad and you’re like me – that means sleeping all day if I feel really ill – you don’t want to answer e-mails or work on something you get send via e-mail. So let people know that you won’t respond at the usual speed. This is absolutely acceptable, as long as people know and can manage their expectations.

3. Don’t worry – it might never happen. That’s what a friend told me once. Because I worried about all sorts of things that could go wrong. Which takes a lot of energy and made my life really difficult. When I took a step back and looked at the situation I realized he was right. Most stuff we are worried about does in fact, not happen, but fear can drive us towards irrational thoughts and behaviour way too easily.

 The company won’t collapse because you are not there for a few days (we hope). This deal won’t disappear because you don’t answer at lightning speed. Your boss is unlikely to fire you because you were ill for a few days. Particularly if you consider number 2 and deal with it somehow responsibly.

 And those colleagues who might have to jump in to help with the one or the other task might need your help at another time – perhaps when they get sick because your colleague came into the office with just a slight sniffle and infected half the office.

 I found that most people like to help  - particularly in such situations. Wouldn’t you? Well, there we go. So no reason to feel guilty.

When you follow those steps above you have a fair chance to increase your resilience and to overcome this often pretty irrational behaviour and feeling.

Take care of yourself, and then take care of your work.









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