Sick of the Secrecy

  • January 11, 2024

Dear Advy,

What are your thoughts on taking mental health days? I have days where I wake up and I am wracked with anxiety and the pressures of the day. While these days are thankfully few and far between, I have taken them as a “sick day”, sharing with my firm that I came down with a 24-hour bug. My worry is if I share the real reason, that I feel too anxious to come in, it will limit my career in some way. I know if I posted this question to social media, the resounding response would be that of course you can take a mental health day – your sick days should not be questioned, but we all know our industry marches to the beat of a different drum. We are trained not to show emotion and we shy away from discussing mental health in general. Maybe I am wrong or maybe it isn’t worth making the distinction. I would love to know your thoughts on this.

Sick of the Secrecy

Dear Sick of the Secrecy,

I’ll answer the easy part first. Should people be able to take sick days when they need them regardless of whether the health problem is physical health or mental health? I have to agree with what you think social media would say: You’re darned right you should be able to.

On to the harder stuff. You worry that if you tell your employer that the reason you are taking a sick day is anxiety, as opposed to the flu, there will be negative consequences to your career. I would love to give you an easy answer of “Nah, what kind of employer would hold it against you that you have a brain that needs care and maintenance sometimes?” We all know that in the real world there are all kinds of employers and peers who will take your acknowledgement that you have anxiety (or depression, or any number of other psychological conditions) as a sign of some kind of weakness that should be punished or exploited. I would be lying to you if I said there weren’t.

Let’s just step back and reframe that particular problem for a moment though. If we stipulate that your boss is one who would put limits on your career for revealing that you have anxiety, is this really a place that’s worth your time, effort and skill? Yes, it’s not like you can just quit your job tomorrow and have ten competing job offers waiting for you, but I can almost guarantee you that you have way more leverage in your employment relationship and more in the way of job opportunities than you’ve been made to believe. There are lots of lousy bosses in the world and let me be clear that a boss that punished you for being anxious would be a lousy boss. You don’t deserve a lousy boss.

It is possible that the way you are using sick days to support your emotional health is causing problems in your workplace. When employees frequently call in sick with little in the way of notice it can place a lot of pressure on their co-workers. A team that has been counting on you can be really thrown off by a sudden absence. Whether that absence is due to anxiety, or it really is a flu virus is beside the point. I mention that not to lay a guilt trip on you but simply to give you an idea of what could be behind some repercussions of taking sick days. That applies regardless of what your reason for calling in sick may be. As a workplace issue, it doesn’t matter why you are calling in sick; what matters is how you are calling in sick. If you are worried about how, these are affecting your performance or how you are perceived at work it may be worthwhile having a frank discussion with your boss and/or co-workers about it. Again, though, it’s irrelevant to the workplace what is causing you to take these sick days unless and until it is the source of a pattern of problem behaviour related to absenteeism. I don’t get the impression that is the case in your situation, but it is worth bearing in mind.

I want to pick up on a key point that you might not even have noticed in your letter. You say that on some mornings you are “wracked with anxiety and the pressures of the day”. You sometimes have to call in sick on days when those are particularly intense.

Emotions provide you with very useful information. Your emotional response is telling you that there is something about the conditions of your workplace that needs to change in order to allow you to do the best you can.

We have been taught that emotions – “being emotional” - is just a distraction from being logical and rational. As you point out, lawyers even more than most people have swallowed the idea that bringing emotion to our work is a problem to be eliminated in our quest for rational perfection. There’s a word for that kind of idea. That word is:


Historian Yuval Hariri uses a helpful analogy to explain how wrong the Mr. Spock-Wannabe school of thought is. He writes that a monkey considering whether to grab a piece of fruit in a tree near where a lion is sleeping, makes use of its emotions as a means of calculating relative risks. The monkey’s fear of being eaten by the lion conducts a calculation of the likelihood of that event occurring. At the same time the monkey’s hunger calculates the degree to which it needs to get the fruit or risk dying of starvation.  Neither fear or hunger offers what we would consider to be a rational calculation, but fear and hunger can work out the relative weight of those risks far more quickly and often more accurately than would happen if the monkey – or one of our human ancestors for that matter – stopped and calmly worked out the cost-benefit analysis. You don’t see a lot of monkeys weighing risk-benefit choices on a spreadsheet, but they are pretty good at doing it, nonetheless.

Why am I going on about banana-craving monkeys? Human survival depends most of the time on the efficiency and (usual) efficacy of our transitory sub-rational thoughts. When we hear screeching tires, our heads swivel to the source of the sound before we have even realized consciously what has happened. Our eyelids blink closed to protect our eyes from blinding flashes of light without our even thinking about it, as any put-upon photographer trying to take a nice set of photos for the school yearbook will tell you.

Your emotional response to what is happening at work is telling you something worth paying attention to. Now, like a lot of the information we get from our emotional calculators it can be pretty hard to tease out what exactly your feeling of anxiety may be telling you. Lucky for you, there are skilled helpers available to you in the form of your local lawyer assistance program. These programs offer free, confidential psychological support and there is no need to wait for a crisis to make use of them. The people you talk to can help you work out what it is about your job that is making you feel so anxious you need to call in sick. They may be able to help you manage your own anxiety symptoms. Even better, they may be able to help you come up with ways that your employer could help make your working conditions such that they don’t make you want to call in sick. Do you have too many files? Are there boundary issues between you and your clients? Could you use some help managing difficult clients? Are billing targets unrealistic? Make no mistake, these are elements of good management as much as they are elements of good working conditions. Your employer deserves to know how it could improve how your office works and you can help.

You might notice that I have equated the emotion of anxiety with the psychological condition of anxiety. I have done that because you yourself have equated your own experience of anxiety with taking a mental health day. Those two things are not equivalent, but the best way for you to find out whether your emotional experience of anxiety is actually a threat to your mental health is – you guessed it – a professional counsellor who works with you individually. No advice column, online quiz, phone app, family member or friend can effectively get to the bottom of that issue with you. If you had a bump on your skin, you would probably go see a dermatologist before you concluded it was cancerous, much less opted for surgery to remove it. Similarly, getting a professional assessment is important in determining what kinds of interventions you or your job needs to make sure you are mentally healthy.

If you do need workplace accommodations – and again a professional is much more capable of helping you figure that out than you can on your own – the time may have come to reveal that your reasons for not coming in sometimes are not a “24-hour bug” but rather anxiety. A workplace that doesn’t know that what it is doing to you is harming you is not able to make changes to your working conditions to mitigate those effects. It wouldn’t help you very much if, in response to the frequency of your getting a 24-hour flu bug, they put out a lot more hand sanitizers. I know I am going out on a limb and giving medical advice here, but I can tell you definitively that hand sanitizer is not very helpful in resolving anxiety symptoms. By withholding the truth of what is keeping you from work, you are depriving your employer of the information it needs to actually accommodate your needs. Yes, it may feel awkward to bring it up and as mentioned above it is possible there could be poor ramifications in your workplace, but in all likelihood, it will not be as bad as you imagine it to be. A common symptom of anxiety – and in fact a pretty common symptom of just being human – is imagining a future that is worse than it turns out to be.

You also mention that as a profession, we lawyers don’t spend a lot of time talking about either emotions or our mental health. You’re right. Do you know what would change that? Lawyers talking about mental health. The culture of our profession is made up of the habits of the many individuals that make it up. The only way to change that culture is to change our own behaviour. Your own behaviour is the only thing you control. Please take every opportunity you can to talk as openly as you can about how you are taking care of your own mental health. Hard as it may be, that is the only way we will change anything.

Be well,

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