Are you sick? Here are 4 strategies to take time off

Tell me if this sounds familiar: on a weekday morning, you wake up in rough shape even though you went to bed at a reasonable hour. You’re tired down to your bones, and your first deep breath of the day tickles a cough out of your sore throat. You can just feel it: you are sick.

What do you do next?

I’m ashamed to admit it, but when I’m unwell I often ignore my symptoms, tell myself I can’t possibly miss a day of work, and go to the lab as usual. This is a bad decision on  many levels: I’m more likely to make mistakes when I’m ill; ignoring my instinct to rest and powering through my day increases how long I’ll be sick for; and since whatever made me sick is probably contagious, I’ll be exposing all of my coworkers to this pathogen.

This behaviour is especially problematic now that flu season is under way. It’s hard to tell from symptoms alone whether you have a cold (which is unpleasant but usually a mild infection) or the flu – which is unpleasant and can also cause fatal infections in vulnerable people such as children or the elderly. This year’s circulating virus strains have had widespread activity in Montreal since the beginning of the year, and have been causing more hospitalizations than usual, making it more important than ever to stay home and NOT spread the virus around if you’re sick.

Despite knowing how important it is to stay home when I’m sick, I find it really difficult to do. And from the sheer number of coughs and sneezes I hear on a daily basis, I suspect I’m not alone. I’ve been thinking about why it can be hard to take sick days, and for each barrier to taking time off to rest, here are strategies to overcome them:

Barrier 1: Feeling the need to work TODAY.
“I have deadlines/presentations/a thesis that needs data!”

  • Please forgive me for whipping out this cliché, but a Ph.D. is a marathon, not a sprint. Any strategy that prioritizes short-term outcomes at the expense of long-term productivity is going to be counterproductive. So when it comes to sickness, taking breaks to rest and days off to recover now is important so that we can be healthy and productive later.
  • If you absolutely insist on doing some kind of work, is there anything that you can do from home, away from your colleagues? Could you write, read literature, analyze data or plan experiments while keeping yourself quarantined at home?

Barrier 2: Having time-sensitive work to do in the lab.
“My cells/samples are going to die/spoil/explode?!”

  • Some things do need to be done at a specific time. But do these actions specifically need to be done by you? Are you really the only person in your lab with the skills to do what you do, or do you have labmates with the technical knowledge and experience necessary to bring your experiments to a pause point?
  • A tip: it can help to explicitly plan your work and have detailed protocols ready ahead of time. This way, you’ll still be able to send detailed instructions to a labmate even if you are delirious with fever.

Barrier 3: Not wanting to disturb anyone else’s schedule.
“I don’t want to impose!”

  • It’s true that we’re all busy. But please believe me: as a member of a lab, I would prefer to take the time to help my colleagues with their work rather than risk getting exposed to their contagious illnesses.
  • Feel free to view this as an exchange of favors: your labmates can help you out right now, and you can find a way to help them out later, once you’ve recovered.

Barrier 4: Fear of looking like a slacker.
“My labmates come in no matter what!”

  • When our coworkers insist on coughing and sniffling their way through their experiments, it can be hard to feel like we can take even a single day off to take care of ourselves. But think of it this way: by staying home when sick, we can then not only take care of ourselves, but also model good behaviour for them.
  • Seeing us take time off to heal could make our colleagues feel, in turn, as if they can give themselves permission to take time off and heal. Incrementally, with each illness, the lab culture can change and to come to work sick might cease to be the norm.


Inertia is a powerful force; if we were looking forward to going to work, it can be difficult to change our plans and stay home and rest instead. But for our own long-term health and productivity – and for the health of everyone around us! – let’s all stay home when we’re sick. The work will still be there for us once we get better.

Banner picture by LoggaWiggler // pixabay

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