While there are loads of positives around people having more flexibility to work from home, there’s one trend that I’ve been noticing around illness lately:
People seem more willing to work through illness as it’s much easier to do this if you don’t need to travel and head into an office.
If they take time off, they seem to put pressure on themselves to return before they’re really ‘well’ again. This ‘hero’ mentality could negatively impact your ability to be resilient, even though ‘soldiering on’ makes people feel that they’re showing resilience and dedication.
People rarely take time off to recuperate in the middle phase when they’re not really ill but they’re not well yet either.
The definition of ‘recuperate’ is “to recover or regain (something lost or taken).”
Recuperating has been on my mind since being off with Covid. I was bedridden, barely being able to move except to drag myself into the shower and eat something. No reading, no TV, no doom scrolling. Even though I knew it was fully acceptable to be off work, I did sneak in a few email checks and some calendar reshuffling even though it caused me great discomfort. Despite the pain, I continued to keep my laptop open.
For me, the situation became increasingly difficult between weeks two and three. I knew that going into the office every day was out of the question and that I couldn’t work full-time. So, for the second week, I tried working for only an hour or two each day just to see how it felt. It sounded like an absurdly tiny amount of time to work, but after talking to the team for 20 minutes, I was exhausted, thus it was difficult to work for the whole 2 hours. Since my hearing wasn’t great, I had to make more of an effort to pay attention and understand what was being said.
By the third week, I was feeling better and making client calls, but I still could only work for approximately three hours a day. When you’re sick and self-employed, you’re in a tough spot since you can take as much time off as you need, but you also risk damaging your business if you don’t stick at it.
I blame the pandemic in part because after you tested negative, you could finish your self-isolation and return to work. It wasn’t the case that everyone had fully healed and should have returned to work, but many hadn’t accrued enough sick leave to consider staying off.
The responsibility of the employer
Employers have a big responsibility here to recognise the signals that someone hasn’t healed and to ask the relevant questions about it (as well as providing sick pay). When we’re not in the office, it’s a lot easier to hide sickness. Employees must also recognise if they are truly ready to return and be honest about resting, rather than merely being off when they are ‘obviously sick.’ This can be a difficult conversation to have, so we’ve got some tips here.
The consequences of returning before recovering
I believe that a decent rule of thumb is to ease back in for how long they were off, i.e. if they’re out for a month, they should gradually build up to their typical hours over a month. You might be quick to dismiss this, but consider the following consequences of people returning before they’ve recovered:
- If they don’t get enough recovery time, it may take them longer to feel better. It will weaken the immune system and increase the likelihood of future illness if this is done repeatedly.
- When your employee isn’t healthy, their mind isn’t either. This means they can’t work to the highest standard easily, and will likely experience more effort, delay, or errors. If you find your focus slipping even when you’re healthy, read our tips here.
- Your clients and co-workers won’t be impressed if you’re only putting forward half the effort or a lower standard due to the health of team members.
- Team relationships
- If you return to work but then announce at a team meeting that you’re still not 100 per cent, it sends the wrong message to your co-workers and damages trust and team morale. No one wants to get sick from their co-workers and it can have a greater impact on the team.
I didn’t nail all of these when I came back, but humans make mistakes. I did share with the team that I wasn’t 100% and promised them I would pack up and leave when my body needed it – and I DID!
So how can you encourage better recovery from illness in your team?
Language is key
It really can be as subtle as the language you use. Rather than asking “are you ill?” or “are you okay to be back?”, try “have you fully recovered?” or “How can we help you ease yourself back into work to boost recovery?”
The United Kingdom has a lower level of productivity while having one of the worst “long hours cultures” in Europe. Shouldn’t we try a new perspective on illness and recovery?
So, please be honest with yourself and ask again: “do you fully allow yourself to recuperate from illness before returning to work?”
If you don’t, it’s time to change that.