From Guilty to Empowered: Overcoming the Guilt of Taking a Sick Day in Nonprofit Leadership

Kathy Archer
6 min readMar 1, 2023

Last week, I came down with a nasty case of the Norovirus and yet…

I had work to do!
I was supposed to do a training session.
I had coaching calls to do and more.

How can I take time off?

My first thought was: I’ve just got to get through this, and then I can get to work.
My second thought was: I’ll just pretend I’m OK. I won’t let anyone know I’m sick.
My third thought was: Did you just think that?

Just pretend?

Is that the kind of person I want to be when my body clearly tells me I should not be at my computer? I will pretend I’m OK and not let on that I’m about ready to fall over. Seriously? I can barely walk from room to room, and I can’t stay awake for more than an hour, and I’m going to pretend I’m OK?

That realization quickly urged me to clear my day’s schedule and let myself be sick! Sometimes it’s “easy” to decide that. However, at other times, taking time off because you are sick isn’t always such a clear choice.

As leaders, we can’t always take a sick day when were are not feeling our best. Sometimes you must work with a headache. Sadly, you can’t always stay home when your menstrual cramps are killing you. And if we all took time off when we had the sniffles, work would never get done.

So how do you know when it’s OK to take time off and when it’s not?
First, you need to pause, stop and perhaps sit down.
Then with intention, ponder your dilemma. You won’t make your best decision with unconscious thoughts whirling in your head.

Let’s go through some considerations, and I’ll provide you with questions you can mull over to help you make a decision you’ll feel better about.

What kind of workplace culture are you creating?

The obvious question is, are you contagious? But we all know that even that won’t stop many of us from working. Instead, we’ll rationalize it to either I’m working at home, I’ll keep my distance, or they’ve probably already been infected.

But what if you took that question a step further?

  • Would taking a sick day help prevent the spread of illness to other team members, and would it help create a culture of care and consideration for others?

Does that change your perspective a wee bit?

  • Am I modelling healthy behaviour and prioritizing my well-being as a leader, and would taking a sick day help to reinforce this message to my team?

What’s the impact of your taking time off?

Leaders carry different responsibilities that often have a trickle-down or ripple-up effect. Your work, or lack of it, can impact others. And by work, I don’t simply mean returning emails and attending meetings. But more so, it’s your decision-making skills, problem-solving abilities, accountability responsibilities and resource delegation roles.

By taking sick time off, you may prevent things from happening, create a bottleneck or further complicate issues. Your absence could mean missed deadlines, loss of funding or risk of failing to meet contractual obligations.

All that is not to make you feel guilty. You already know this. That’s why I say it. Worrying about this in the background only creates guilt and anxiety and may cause you to work when you really shouldn’t.

So what to do? Again, I’ll encourage you to pause. Stop and sit down without your laptop and phone for a few minutes, then ponder. Consider the following questions.

  • Would my absence cause significant disruption to my team or clients?
  • Are there others, particularly senior leaders, absent?
  • Am I covering for any of those leaders?
  • Is there someone I could put in charge?
  • Are there multiple people I can delegate responsibilities to?
  • Have I ensured my team has the resources and support they need to continue working effectively in my absence, such as clear instructions, updated contact lists, and access to necessary technology?
  • Do I have any important deadlines or projects that could be impacted by taking a day off, and if so, have I made arrangements to mitigate any potential setbacks?
  • Would my absence create excess workload, pressure or morale issues for my team or organization?
  • How can I communicate my absence and its reasons clearly and timely to soften that impact?

What needs to be reorganized?

  • What can be moved?
  • What can be rescheduled?
  • What can be delegated?
  • What can be let go of?

You’re entitled to sick leave. Taking time off when unwell is not something to feel guilty about. The more intention you put into creating a plan for your absence, the easier it will be to let go and take care of yourself.

Are you risking burning out if you don’t take care of yourself?

As a nonprofit leader, your work is incredibly important, and you’re likely passionate about the cause you’re working to advance. However, there are times when it’s important to take a step back and prioritize your own well-being before it’s too late!

  • Have I been getting enough rest and sleep lately, or do I feel exhausted and burned out?
  • Have I been feeling emotionally drained or overwhelmed, and would taking a day off help me recharge?
  • Have I been neglecting my personal needs or self-care, and could taking a sick day help me prioritize my well-being?
  • Would taking a day off help me recover more quickly and prevent my illness from getting worse?
  • Would taking a sick day help me return to work stronger and more focused, and would it ultimately benefit my team and organization in the long run?

What makes it so hard to make a choice to look after me?

  • What can I do to make it easier?

If you are feeling unwell and you think taking a day off would help you recover more quickly, it may be worth taking a sick day. Taking care of yourself and getting the rest you need can help prevent your illness from worsening and help you feel better faster.

What about your family?

When illness hits, it often hits an entire household. So while you need to consider your work responsibilities, you must also consider what’s happening at home. Gallup’s research has found that members of strong teams are as committed to their personal lives as they are to their work. That means when their families need them, they are passionate about being there for their families. You are a better leader when you do.

  • Does my family need me?
  • Has my spouse, our childcare worker, been shouldering much of the load?
  • Is it my turn to carry the burden?
  • Is it time to just let go?

Ideas for using the questions:

While you probably aren’t going to review this entire list every time you get sick, it is a place to come back to on occasion to ensure you are being your best self and, thus, the most positively impactful leader you can be.

  1. Print the questions off and put them on the side of your fridge to review when you get sick.
  2. Use the questions after you were sick to review how you did. So often at the moment, we don’t think straight. Reviews can help us pull learning and apply those learnings for next time.
  3. Use as a tool for staff meeting discussion. Help others decide when it’s time to take a sick day. This will help set the culture of sick time you want.

As a nonprofit leader, your work is important, but so is your health and well-being. By using this framework to help you decide when to take a sick day and keep these reminders in mind, you’ll be better equipped to care for yourself and continue making a difference in the world.

Originally published at https://www.kathyarcher.com.

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Kathy Archer

Helping women leaders make it in the nonprofit world. Leadership Development Coach * Best-Selling Author * Wife * Mom * Grandma * Dog Mom to Max