Sick Leave? Over My Dead Body!
An overachiever’s journey away from the workforce
When I was diagnosed with lung cancer last year, I took two days off from my data analyst job to process the news. On Monday, I was back to working full time.
Did I want to work?
No way. I was crying in the bathroom between meetings. I could barely focus long enough to read an email. All I wanted to do was watch Netflix and eat ice cream.
Would taking sick leave affect my salary or vacation days?
Nope. I work in the Netherlands, where this leave is fully supported by law. Employees can be on it for up to TWO YEARS without losing their job. They receive their full salary in the first year, 70% in the second year. If they recover within that time, the company is obliged to take them back and offer an equivalent position to when they left. Oh, the wondrous world of the European social model.
Did the company pressure me to keep working?
Also no. The company organizes regular seminars about the importance of mental health and repeatedly tells employees to put their welfare before the company. The Global Manager of Wellbeing (yes, the company even had one of those) made me promise I’d get at least a week off to deal with my diagnosis — I then avoided her for that week so she wouldn’t find out I ignored her advice. My manager told me to take as much time as I needed. I was suspicious at first, as the boss in one of my previous workplaces would fire people for taking all their vacation days, and sick leave was code for working from home. However, when my manager opened up about having been through hard times himself and how he wished he’d taken more time off, I knew he meant it. He said I could tell him, “I don’t feel well,” and turn off my laptop — that’s how easy it would be.
Did I have a voice inside me saying I had no right to get sick leave when I was physically able to do my job?
Yes, and it’s been there my entire life.
My parents have been my primary role models for work ethic. My mother was in and out of the hospital for two years before her death at age 43. Throughout that time, whenever she had the tiniest bit of energy to go to the office, she did. My father willingly used less than half of his annual paid vacation days. In his late 50s, he also worked during his cancer treatments (including chemo, radiation, and surgery). Neither of them would reach the sweet relief of retirement they labored so hard for.
Besides them, all the people I looked up to were notorious workaholics. Like Albert Einstein, who, legend says, was scribbling equations on his deathbed. Or Elon Musk, who tweeted, “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”. Most of these workaholics turned out to be not-so-great people (absent fathers, ruthless to their employees, the list goes on), but that’s a small price to pay for being at the top of your field.
So naturally, ever since I can remember, I’ve defined myself by how well I did at my job. As a kid, school was my job, and the goal was to make the teachers happy. I got a little kick of adrenaline whenever I scored a top grade or when a school rival praised my intelligence. Later on, I’d come to define myself by my professional career, where the goal was to make the bosses happy. I lived for the moments when they said, “What would we do without you?”
I knew my intelligence and hard work would take me places. Maybe one day, if I worked hard enough, I’d become famous for helping to solve climate change. Even if that didn’t happen, I’d at least have a well-paying position, and consequently, a worry-free future — or rather, a worry-free retirement, in which I’d be able to afford a roof over my head and pay for my meds. For context, I grew up in Portugal, the country with the lowest wages in Western Europe (here’s a neat map that explains our inferiority complex against our neighboring countries). I finished University in 2011, at the height of a devastating financial crisis, marked by a surge in unemployment (with youth unemployment reaching almost 40%).
With all of this ingrained in me, I couldn’t afford to have fun in my free time. That’s what losers did. My free time was reserved for useful things. While doing my physics degree, I used the train commute to learn German, which would allow me to get employment in more countries (and help me get the hell out of Portugal). During my Ph.D. in Engineering, already in the safety of Northwestern Europe, I used one month of vacation to take online business courses and diversify my skill set. I volunteered to teach children to program on the weekends because it looked good on my CV, even though I can’t stand children. When I got my first job as a data analyst, I worked overtime at the office every day to get ahead of everyone else. When my manager asked me to stop and take time off, I started secretly doing overtime at home instead.
When I was sick, I would still work. You’d regularly see me in the office rubbing my itchy, bloodshot eyes and flooding my keyboard with nasal mucus. During my Ph.D., I had a surgical procedure that left me bedridden for three months, but the pain didn’t stop me from working on my thesis.
The continuous pressure and overwork I put myself in naturally led to a constant state of anxiety and sadness, sometimes reaching depression levels. I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking, What if I’m not doing everything I possibly can to reach my goals? I failed to see the irony that my path to a worry-free future was full of worrying. However, mental health issues were not on my list of acceptable reasons to stop doing anything. They are invisible, hard to explain. Annoying little bugs I should be able to crush and shove to a dark corner of my brain while I focus on the report I have to deliver. My brain had one word to describe people who are physically able to work yet choose not to: lazy.
So, to ask for time off to process my cancer diagnosis (with Netflix and ice cream) was not an option. I would be losing my identity.
After the diagnosis, I started a light cancer treatment (as far as cancer treatments go) called targeted therapy. I didn’t have any significant side effects and only needed to go to the hospital once every three months. So all the more reason to keep working as hard as before. Yet somehow, things didn’t feel quite the same. Being confronted with my mortality made the end-of-week performance report seem insignificant. I’d never felt this way about any work task before.
In my free time, I started to find new hobbies purely for the pleasure they gave me. I began meditating, writing, doing storytelling, stand-up, whatever my heart desired. Some friends told me these hobbies were still quite productive, though not to me. My brain did not recognize these activities as productive because I had no intention of reaping financial benefits from them. I guess I could call them spiritually productive.
After five months of pretending like everything was just peachy, I built up the courage to ask my manager to work 32h a week instead of 40h. It would come with a salary reduction, but I was earning well enough to get by. It was a safe choice. I told my manager I felt physically fine, but I wanted the extra time to do fun stuff. He said, “Yes,” without even thinking about it.
A year later, I received the news that the targeted therapy treatment stopped being effective, so I needed to switch to chemotherapy and immunotherapy. The anxiety I felt in the initial diagnosis came right back. The stress of not knowing how my body would react to the side effects, whether the new treatment would give good results, or how long I still had to live.
“Will I be able to do my job during this treatment?” I asked my oncologist.
“Well, you’ll go through cycles. Some days you might be able to do some tasks, others not.”
“I’m thinking of quitting my job,” I told him.
“What? Why would you do that?” he seemed stunned. I assumed he’d say I should continue working, that it’s good to feel useful for recovery — beliefs I still held deep down in my mind.
“I want to spend my few good days doing what I love,” I explained. “Not working.”
“Yes, of course, but why don’t you take sick leave instead?”
“Are you sure I can do that?”
“Even when I would be physically able to work?”
“Yes! I can give you a paper. Companies have insurance for this sort of thing. It happens all the time. And I don’t think your employer would be OK with you quitting just because you’re ill.”
I considered his words for a second, then muttered, “OK, I guess I won’t quit.”
I finally told my manager I wanted to go on sick leave. It only took a cancer diagnosis, chemo, and direct instructions from my oncologist. I had prepared my arguments and counter-proposals, but my manager simply said, “OK, sure, no problem.” It was a five-minute conversation, and the next day I stopped working.
I am now part of the non-productive members of society. I expected to feel guiltier than I do, but it’s pretty OK. I don’t know if I’ll use up my two years of sick leave or what I’ll do afterward. I’m taking it one day at a time. In my new identity, my only job is to be happy. Now. And it’s a damn important one.
Do you have a story about a health condition or medical procedure? One of those you tell people at parties, and everyone bursts out laughing at your misfortune? Or maybe one of those you’ve never shared with fear of being a downer? We would love to hear it! Contribute to Innards, and join the team.