The Sick Day Advantage

It’s that time of year again — cold and flu season.  It typically starts the week after kids head back to school….and sure enough our entire family has been down with a cold this past week.

*Cough* *Cough*

Back when I was still working, I notice something really peculiar about being sick and working:  Most people would still show up to work even if they were ill.  The pressure to perform in the modern workplace was pushing people back to work far sooner than they really should have.  

This ends up spreading the virus faster than bad news on a Tuesday.

Yet another example of the modern corporate world pushing people down a path that’s bad for our health and bad for our happiness.


Modern Companies Might Be Even Worse

But wait a minute — What if you happen to work at one of these so called “modern” companies that don’t “do” sick days?  

I used to work at one of these companies — essentially they didn’t have sick leave.  Instead, PTO and sick leave were treated as exactly the same thing — Paid Leave.  When I needed to stay home (regardless of the purpose), I had to use my 10 annual PTO days.

As you might expect, this system incentivized me to attend work even when I wasn’t healthy… mainly because I didn’t want to lose one of my precious days off.  

In my mind, this is a terrible system.  It incentivized exactly the opposite of what a company should want — you to stay home and not spread the cold even further.

What about companies that have unlimited vacation days?  

While only about 1% of companies in the United States have such a policy, it’s really not that different.  They don’t care if it’s a sick day or a vacation day.  Think you’ll take-off more vacation if such a policy is instituted?  Think again!

Do you imagine ‘unlimited vacation’ days as a chance to relax and live a little?  The truth of the matter is, some people end-up taking even less vacation!

The onus of performance is placed squarely on the employee’s shoulders.  How well do you think you’ll do during performance review time when you spent a month in the Bahama’s while everyone else was working?

Yeah, probably not that great.  

It’s a race to the bottom, and our corporate masters are loving it.  What’s more, with unlimited vacation policies corporations don’t even have to pay for accrued PTO days when you’re are laid-off or quit.


Parents Have It Worse

You think heading back to work still sick is rough?  After I became a parent, I discovered that parents have it far worse.  

Most parents have had one of those mornings… The alarm clock goes off at the usual time.  You shower, you dress, and begin the day’s preparations.  Everything seems perfectly normal….until it’s time to wake the kids up.  

That’s when everything goes to hell.

During the night, one of your children developed a fever.  When you feel their forehead, you realize the entire day just went down the tubes.



A Parent’s Lost Days

As you might expect, a child with a fever can’t go to school or day care.  It’s a typical policy found at most schools and childcare centers.  They don’t want you spreading the sickness further.  If you have younger children, this also means the child has to stay home with a parent.

Any plans you had for the day are completely thrown out the window because you have to stay home.  Had a 8:00AM meeting you needed to attend?  Well, you better reschedule!  Trying to bust-ass to get that promotion at work?  Woops!  Taking unexpected sick days isn’t going to help.

Sick Day Smiles
My son had the audacity to smile for his “sick day” photo. Doesn’t he understand his dad is trying to make a point here?  Sick days aren’t supposed to be fun!

For working parents this kind of scenario is a minor nightmare.  Who’s going to stay home?  Who took the last unexpected sick day?  Who’s got the most flexible schedule?  Which parent had the most important meeting to attend?  It’s an exercise in trying to determine which parent will encounter the least career damage.

I won’t even try to imagine how stressful this must be for single parents….

According to some statistics, children “acquire” an average of 6-10 colds per year.  If we assume a fever lasts only one day, that’s a potential 6-10 days lost to caring for sick kids.  

Parents get double-torture because eventually they’ll contract the virus, and stay home for another 6 to 10 days per year.  If you have to use PTO days for sick leave (like I did), this quickly eats up the PTO.

Before kids, I thought of PTO as vacation days.  Days when I would relax,  maybe fly to someplace tropical, and enjoy a cool beverage beside the pool.

After kids, my PTO days became sick days, or taking care of sick kid days.

Vacation?  What the hell is that?  I rarely had any PTO left after all the sick days.  It really sucks!


The FIRE Advantage

With two kids and a full time job it felt like I was sick all the time, or staying home with a sick kid.  My health suffered for it.

I don’t blame my kids of course, I blame the modern workplace.  Our corporate masters are always pushing for more productivity, constantly reducing health benefits, and modifying PTO plans to minimize costs.  If there ever was a clear indication that our corporate masters don’t care for our well being, that’s it right there.

But what can a person do about it?

My solution was Financial Independence and Early Retirement.  It neatly solved these problems — Instead of heading to work and suffering through the entire work day (while sick), I now stay in bed and recover.  

For example, last week I had a terrible cold.  Rather than push myself to get things done, I just rested.  I made very little progress on my personal projects (like this website), but I don’t need to worry about things like performance evaluations anymore.

My investments will continue to generate cash whether I’m lying in bed or standing up.

Having one parent at home also makes our lives much easier when the kids are sick.  One parent heads to work while the other handles the child care and doctor’s visits.  No meetings need to be rescheduled, and the work stress is greatly reduced.

This is one of the biggest advantages to financial independence — it’s like a pressure release valve on the pressure cooker of life.  All that pent-up stress is gone.  All that pressure to perform better than others is gone too.  

Vacation days can actually be used for vacation.  If illness happens, we can take the time to recover properly.  

Life gets to happen on your own terms when you’re financially independent.

*Cough* *Cough*

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go take a nap…


[Image Credit: Flickr1, Flickr2]

24 thoughts on “The Sick Day Advantage

  • October 18, 2016 at 5:04 PM

    Well said. Before FIRE, even if I took a day off sick; I was at my laptop for at least 6 hours of the day keeping up with email. At least I wasn’t spreading disease but I wasn’t getting necessary rest either.

  • October 18, 2016 at 7:34 PM

    I have gotten sick more often lately compared to when we didn’t have any kids. It’s definitely harder to get the needed rest at home with 1 kid running away and 1 little one needing to be attended. Even taking a day off from work means stuff getting loaded up. More reason to be FI.

    • October 18, 2016 at 8:20 PM

      I completely agree. All the more reason to be FI.

  • October 18, 2016 at 9:02 PM

    I work for a French company and we get a general 20 days of PTO. Even at this rate people do not want to take them for sick days. I do plan on having kids before FIRE, but fortunately I have much more time off to play with.

    As for that unlimited vacation day policy, that is definitely worse than my situation. I would love to hear if anyone has taken more than 20 days off with unlimited vacation.

  • October 18, 2016 at 9:15 PM

    My company actually has no limit on sick days. I love this policy since I’m encouraged to stay home and get better. I also don’t have to worry about applying any personal or vacation days when I’m sick like at some companies. You might think that people would take advantage of this policy, but to my knowledge, all of my co-workers are pretty honest about it. Though as to the number of vacation days I actually get…well, personally I’d rather be FIRE’d like yourself 🙂

  • October 19, 2016 at 5:05 AM

    Sounds like FIRE is better than any leave policy. 🙂

    Until I join you there, though, I appreciate my office’s sick leave policy. We earn sick leave and vacation time simultaneously and accrue both separately. When you leave for a new job or retirement, your vacation time is cashed out, but your sick leave is not. This encourages us to actually take our sick leave. I think this actually works out better for the employer because (1) you won’t make everyone else sick, like you noted above, and (2) if I take a sick day and rest up as soon as I feel a cold coming on, then I can miss minimal time and be 100% whenever I am in the office.

    • October 19, 2016 at 9:43 AM

      Better than any leave policy I’ve ever encountered, that’s for certain!

  • October 19, 2016 at 5:45 AM

    Yes, yes, yes.

    It’s the start of *that* season, and people are already coming to work sick. I’m a contractor, which means I don’t even qualify for PTO or sick days! So if someone comes to work sick and I get sick, I miss out on several days of income–which is horrible.

    The whole system is set up for failure. I mean, come on. 0 – 10 paid days off in an entire year? Given all of the things that can happen in life, that is pretty stingy. I get that businesses need to be productive and return a profit, but when the system is rigged in a way that discourages missing work, you end up with sick people at the office.

    I’ve found that a good in-between here is having the ability to work from home when sick. This works well for my situation, since missing work = no money. But it’s still horrible, because working is the last thing you want to do when you have a stomach bug and can’t think.

    I would love the idea of unlimited PTO, but even then I wonder if people would take advantage of it. Overall I think our culture needs to change to be highly flexible, especiallly for families.

    • October 19, 2016 at 9:51 AM

      From my own research (and there isn’t a whole lot out there yet), unlimited PTO seems to cause workers to take fewer days off on average. But this is merely anecdotal, as there are so few companies doing this.

  • October 19, 2016 at 7:30 AM

    What makes it even worse Mr Tako is that those standing at the water cooler sneezing, coughing and barking always find a way to tell you how motivated and commited they are to the company cause. Like it is a badge of honor to be at work and sick. No, something is very very wrong with that. It starts with common sense. More needed by the employee and certainly a more forward thinking mind-set by the employer.

    Just got my flu jab yesterday….

  • October 19, 2016 at 8:23 AM

    My company has an unlimited sick-day policy. I think it’s the best way to keep your workers healthy… But on the other hand, they still push targets and objectives so most employees come in sick. 🙁

    • October 19, 2016 at 9:46 AM

      An unlimited sick day policy is pretty decent…at least some people might stay home occasionally when they’re sick.

  • October 19, 2016 at 9:34 AM

    What happened to everyone telecommuting to work?! 🙂 Ok, you still see some of that, but yeah, definitely too many people heading to the office when they are sick. I see it every day at my office and I’m guilty of it myself. The only good thing I have going is I have my own office so I’ll just shack up in there and close the door for the day.

    Being able to stay home with a sick kid without a worry sounds like a definite a perk of FI! A lot of times if my daughter is sick, I’ll go into work for half a day and then work the other half from home. My wife will do the opposite schedule and that seems to work pretty good, but still a pain in the $%@.

    — Jim

    • October 19, 2016 at 9:42 AM

      Wait a second!!! You have a DOOR? You aren’t in the “bull pen” with the rest of us plebs? Talk about Luxury!

      Also, how do you work from home and take care of a kid? Mine is jumping on me right now…it’s terribly distracting!

      • October 19, 2016 at 10:46 AM

        I think I figured out why my kid has always played quietly by herself when I’m working from home when she’s sick… I have a girl. 🙂 Yours is definitely a boy. I have a lot of friends with boys and they seem to keep their parents on their toes a little more! 🙂

        The bad news for me is that girls tend to become more “fun” to deal with as teenagers. It’s about that time that you’ll definitely have the last laugh!

        — Jim

        • October 19, 2016 at 12:18 PM

          That has to be it, as with two boys I can’t imagine getting anything done working from home with them present. Even now I get up to go to the bathroom for 5 seconds and my youngest is trying to create a post on my blog at night.
          Ironically I went to work today with a cold. Sorry coworkers.

  • October 19, 2016 at 11:15 AM

    I’ve heard a fire at sea is the worst type of fire, and I’d like to say something about the process of completely disengaging from routine work and becoming adrift in a sea of spare time.

    There becomes a point when the shock and awe of your daily worker bee routine stops and you have “unlimited” time. I honestly felt I had some sort of PTSD. I became listless. Sick today? No problem. Want to blow an entire day surfing the web? No problem. Want to watch the entire series of breaking bad in just a few days? I am certainly not proud of what has happened in my first three years of FIRE. I just needed time to heal I guess.

    I’m so embarrassed in fact I’ve create a new screen name just to share this.

    You might want to retire like I did… move to a sun belt state, buy a house with cash, and set sail into a lifestyle where you can set your own course. Truly, at least for me, it’s was easy to drift with the current, and spin in the wind… listlessly.

    So be ready for the FIRE! Have goals, set a direction! Stay on course! ! And yes, sometimes you’ll need to power through a few sniffles and make some progress. Have a plan!!!

  • October 19, 2016 at 5:07 PM

    I think I get 15 but I never take more than 1 or 2. I only take off sick when I can’t go in because I don’t like to get behind! You are right though – sometimes I would do better taking 3-4 days off to get fully better.

  • October 20, 2016 at 7:19 AM

    Ugh, our kid always get sick at the start of the school year as well. He has a lingering cough for 4 weeks now. He only missed school a few times, though. When I was working at the Megacorp, I usually take time off when I was sick. I definitely felt pressure to get back in the office ASAP, though. Hope you’all feel better soon.

  • October 20, 2016 at 7:25 AM

    I was lucky to have separate sick days, and quite a few of them. A friend of mine has unlimited days off, but only because they know its a competitive environment where people will end up using less than if they had a set number of days.

  • November 5, 2016 at 7:35 AM

    I’m a contractor, but they are required to give me sick days I earn. No PTO. I don’t get to cash out the sick days when the project is over. I’m usually pretty healthy and up on my flu shot. I took a sick day as a personal day this week and there’s nothing they can do about. My “stomach bug” resolved itself pretty quickly in sunlight.

  • October 23, 2017 at 4:09 PM

    I had a company with separate vacation and sick leave that combined them, but without increasing PTO to compensate (just eliminated sick leave, essentially). Of course, no one took sick leave if they could help it. And since my colds/flu run on and on, even a generous sick policy wasn’t enough to stay away the entire time I was unwell (not to mention the deadlines).

    Noticed I’ve been sick far less after leaving the workforce. Working the cube farm, you would hear the bug leap from cube to cube, and it was always coming your way, eventually.


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