Imagine, just for a moment, if sick days were a thing of the past. Wait, stay with me on this. I’m not advocating that employers slash sick day entitlements, but rather I’m proposing the idea of a workplace in which health wasn’t viewed as secondary to illness. A workplace in which our well-being wasn’t something we were only formally allowed to tend to when it became physically impossible to get out of bed and go to work, but rather a priority that was recognised upfront, within workplace agreements…
I’m proposing a workplace culture which, in addition to sick days, had ‘Health Days’. Paid for in just the same way, but with the emphasis being on You. Staying. Healthy.
The reality is that many of us already take ‘Health Days’ – unofficially. We call them ‘mental health days’, joke that we are ‘wagging school’ or ‘chucking a sickie’. Euphemisms for those days when we recognise that a pre-emptive time out is needed – before the wheels fall off the wagon completely and we are useless not only to our employer, but to our family and ourselves.
Of course, your boss would probably argue that’s what annual leave is for but, let’s face it, leave if often anything but relaxing. If you’re a parent then leave is usually orientated around school break and, I would guess, scheduled to the hilt. If you are single then it’s often about an expensive and stressful sense of obligation to go somewhere and ‘make the most’ of the time (hence my preference these days for a ‘staycation‘ in which I do little more than lay on my lounge and read). The truth is that what leave is rarely about is – ‘self-care’.
Unfortunately we are also living with the legacy of the busy, busy culture we have fostered, in which it is now near impossible to take guilt-free sick leave. This is further compounded by the knowledge that accessing sick leave entitlements is viewed through a lens of scepticism by many employers – for which the spike in unplanned absences on days like Melbourne Cup does little to rectify.
It might sound like a lark – paid health days – but unplanned (real) sick leave has an enormous economic impact. In 2015 alone, the cost of absenteeism to Australian business was estimated to be over $32.5 billion. And yet the need for self-care continues to come as a surprise to employers and employees continue to concoct flimsy excuses, when it should be entirely unnecessary to call in and claim a cold, a headache, or the stomach flu… coughing into the phone, putting on your death-bed voice and hanging up for a sudden dash to the loo. (Come on, we’ve all done it.)
Whether it’s simply a need for some ‘me time’ or something more accountable such as getting to the doctor for that routine check-up, to the dentist for that scale and clean, or to get the full body massage that is claimable under your health cover but for which you can never find time outside of working hours, employers should be encouraging their staff down a path of wellness. And we, as employees, should be leading the charge – taking ownership of our health and well-being.
Of course, you should still take sick days when you have the flu (please!), but taking the time to get regular medicals, exercise and eat well, as well as keep the mind aligned with the body, is equally important. And many of the appointments that support these principles are difficult to make after hours (particularly when you factor in family responsibilities).
If you’re thinking that the institution would likely want to regulate an employee’s use of that time, then you’re probably right. And let’s be fair, it would be reasonable that a company would want to ensure its money was being wisely spent (i.e. not put on a horse at Melbourne Cup) – and with some open-mindedness (on both the side of the employee and employer), perhaps that’s not an entirely bad thing. For while both parties have a shared responsibility to foster the principles of self-care – for businesses, their greatest investment should always be their staff. Whether a small business or a large government department, your people are the backbone of your success. Ensuring they are fit for work should be a part of your business plan.
I’ve thought a lot about what my Health Day would look like. For a start I’d get into the dentist for a clean and check-up and get a mammogram. I’d likely take that stretch class that is only available at 1pm, or try out a float tank. After taking care of the physical self, I might even spend an hour in Bunnings followed by some time in the garden – because that for me is some of the best mental therapy. Some of these activities would be accountable – i.e. medical receipts for my health care insurer (perhaps even copies for my employer as part of the condition of using the day), but most of it would be difficult to quantify for anyone else but me. An employer who recognises the value in both the quantifiable and qualifiable, will yield the biggest rewards, because both sorts of activities are no less important in the long run – enabling employees to reset and re-energise. At work this translates to increased productivity, more focus, greater engagement and loyalty – and less unplanned absenteeism. It’s a win, win situation.
What would your day look like, if you could swap out a sick day, for a health day?