Note: I currently live in the UK and have previously lived in Canada. My statements are based in the general employment situation that pertains in those countries and countries like them, where there is significant employment protection in law, and significant levels of unionisation. (The USA is an exception, and not in a good way.)
What you are experiencing now is not necessarily because of the pandemic. The pandemic has revealed just how broken many of our systems were.
Over the past several weeks, I have had a few bursts of tweeting about sick leave, personal responsibility, and institutional failure.
Universities are subject to the same employment laws as everyone else. That means if you are signed off sick, you are entitled to be off. It is your employer’s responsibility to figure out what happens with your teaching and other duties. This will not be easy. It’s worth considering what would make things even 5% better.
If your reaction to the title of this post is some variation on “it would be nice to have the option”, you can go ahead and jump to the final section by clicking here. Or, you can jump to the section you might find most useful in the list below.
- Illness is inconvenient
- Illness is not a personal failing
- Respect the expertise of other professionals
- Taking sick leave doesn’t mean you don’t care about your work
- Make the best decision you can in your context
- Do you even have sick leave?
- Related posts
Illness is inconvenient.
Your illness doesn’t give a damn about the institutional calendar. Your body isn’t going to wait for a convenient time to be ill. That said, your body will produce a lot of cortisol and other hormones to keep you going in a high stress situation. If you are in a pattern of coming down with something whenever you take time off, you are working too hard. Sooner or later, that illness is going to be too severe for your body’s stress response to stave off.
Cognitive fatigue is a real thing. So is clinical burnout. One of my clients was diagnosed & is working with an occupational therapist. She’s also had several months sick leave. Yes everyone is tired. But there is also a growing epidemic of cognitive fatigue. Seek medical help.
Illness is not a personal failing.
This is huge. The idea of illness as a moral failing or a personal failure to maintain your health is drummed into you from a very young age. It appears in primary schools as awards for 100% attendance (and policies that require schools to have high average attendance). It is built into all kinds of narratives about food and exercise.
The language of fighting and resisting disease as if it’s some kind of foreign invader is paired with the language of “giving in” and “losing the battle”. No one wants to be weak. No one wants to be a loser.
These narratives mean that we now collectively have a very poor understanding of how immunity works. The reaction to the Covid pandemic has revealed the depth of ignorance of infectious diseases, transmission vectors, and immune response. For example, a vaccine is not some magic potion that protects you from a virus like a force field. There is a difference between a “side effect” of a vaccine and variation in the expected immune response to the vaccine. Soreness at the injection site, fever, chills, and other mild symptoms of illness are within the normal range of expected immune response to the vaccine. If you have not yet been vaccinated, plan for the possibility that you will not be able to work at your normal capacity and may have to take a few days off.
Of course not all illness is an infectious disease. You aren’t personally responsible for preventing heart disease, cancer, arthritis, burnout, depression, or any other acute or chronic illness. The fact that the structural conditions of your working life or your living conditions have contributed to your illness, does not mean that it is less worthy of care. You need to be even more confident about this to deal with the systems that benefit from making you think this.
Respect the expertise of other professionals.
You don’t get to just decide that the professional opinion of your medical doctor is a suggestion. Doctors don’t just make up sick notes and recovery times. (Though it is in the political interests of some to make people think that they do.) They are professionals with specialist training and knowledge. Your PhD doesn’t make you smarter than they are, it indicates expertise in a different area.
A serious illness requires serious recovery time. You will then need to gradually increase your activity levels, rather than just jumping back in at the deep end. If your doctor gives parameters for your phased return to work, they have used their professional judgment to determine those parameters. They are not a suggestion. If they have referred you to an occupational therapist, the professional opinion of the OT is also not a suggestion.
That means you (or your employer) can’t translate x hours per day into x + 4 one day and then take the next day off. Those things are not necessarily equivalent, however inconvenient the professional recommendation is. It also means that if your doctor says it will take you 6 weeks to recover from surgery, you can’t fudge it so you are back for the beginning of semester. If your immediate manager (supervisor, head of department, dean, whoever) suggests that you modify the recommendations, seek support from your union if necessary.
Respect the knowledge and experience of these professionals the way you would like your own knowledge and experience to be respected.
Taking sick leave doesn’t mean you don’t care about your work.
You care about your students. You care about your research. You care about the programme you lead, or the hiring committee you are part of. When I said “inconvenient” I was not trying to minimize the problem.
Illness impairs your ability to do your job well. Taking time off to recover properly from illness is evidence that you care about your work, your students, your colleagues. You want to do the work well.
Taking time off work for minor illness means you care about your work (or specific aspects of it, including the impact on students, colleagues, etc) enough that you want to minimize the impact of your illness, by limiting the amount of time your capacity is affected by illness and preventing your illness from getting worse. In the case of infectious illness, taking time off work also protects your students and colleagues from infection. (One outcome of the pandemic might be that you now wear a mask to avoid spreading respiratory illness in that stage where it really doesn’t impact your capacity to work, but is highly contagious to others.)
The fact that there is no backup if you are ill, or that illness will put greater pressure on your already overworked colleagues, is an institutional failure. It is in the interests of employers (and governments who want to reduce funding for public services like education) to make you think you have a personal responsibility to the students. This absolves them of having to figure out how to meet their obligations if you get sick.
Interestingly some universities suddenly discovered an ability to have contingency plans in place for academic staff illness when the threat of a very serious illness requiring hospitalization seemed likely in the early stages of the pandemic. (I’m not applauding their panicked solutions, just the fact that they acknowledged an institutional responsibility.)
You are not the cause of either the extra pressure on your colleagues, or the fact that your students don’t get some of what was promised. Your employer is. (Resisting the pressure to cover for colleagues would be a good thing for unions for focus on.)
Make the best decision you can in *your* context.
I have made a strong case for taking leave. I do not know your personal context. You need to consider what I’ve said in relation to your own circumstances, such as your legal and contractual entitlement, the culture of your department, the personality and track record of your individual PI or head of department, the support you have available from colleagues, friends, a union, etc, and even your personal capacity (emotional and financial) to take legal action to defend your right to take sick leave if necessary.
You do have choices. They are probably not the choices you want. They are probably not easy or obvious choices. I have presented a strong case to help you question some of the reactions you will get (including from the voices in your head) and decide which ones really are not in your own interest, or possibly even in the interests of those telling those stories directly.
I’m sorry you are in a situation where you need this advice and are struggling with how to apply it in your situation. The structural barriers to doing what is in the interests of your own health are significant. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth making your situation 5% better…
Do you even have sick leave?
If you do not have a legal or contractual entitlement to sick leave, this is a political problem. It will require collective political action to change. Be wary of just shrugging your shoulders and saying “it must be nice for some”. There is no good reason you don’t have a right to sick leave.
If you have a legal entitlement to sick leave, but it is either unpaid or paid at a very low rate, this is also a political problem that requires collective action to change.
There are various levels at which collective action might be taken. Joining your union and including paid sick leave in collective bargaining is an option open to many. If you already have a union, becoming more active in the union to press for not only decent protection for sick leave but also the structural change that would make it possible to take sick leave is another option.
Campaigning (as part of your union, a political party, or an organization not affiliated to a political party) for better legal protections, higher levels of legally required sick pay (however that is organized in your jurisdiction), and general changes to labour and employment law to make work less of a contributor to illness, and make it possible for workers to take the sick leave they are entitled to, is obviously a bigger and longer term option.
One reason to not overwork, and look after yourself, is so you have the capacity to take part in this kind of action for structural change in some way. Obviously everyone’s capacity will vary. The smallest political step is to stop defending the status quo as the way things have to be.
Priorities and boundaries in the face of job insecurity addresses the specific fear that you can’t do this because institutions are closing departments and making people redundant.
This post was written in response to the uncertainty and despair felt by many academics really struggling with their institutions and burnout at the moment over on Twitter. To read more conversations and rants from me, follow me on Twitter!