Doctors Taking Sick Leave : An ongoing taboo

We explore the reasons there is this taboo about doctors taking sick leave, the ramifications of 'powering through' and how we can overcome this

Presenteeism – the act of attending work whilst sick

A recent article published in the BMJ quotes that doctors take a third as many sick days as other NHS staff and a fifth the number taken by other allied healthcare staff.

It’s not because we’re superhuman, but more likely because of some of these reasons:

  • the responsibilities we bear
  • understaffing at work (“Who else will do my on call?”)
  • implications this may have on our career (Some Foundation Doctors are advised that they can only have up to 2 weeks sickness absence before they may be asked to repeat the year),
  • consideration of that pesky Hippocratic oath.
  • Guilt towards their patients and colleagues

Unfortunately whilst battling the wars of working in healthcare and your own immune system, few consider the likely ramifications of doing this:

  • Working less efficiently than you would do otherwise
  • Spreading contagious illnesses to colleagues and patients
  • Prolonging an illness by avoiding or limiting necessary recuperation time
  • Possible secondary impairment of several cognitive functions including concentration, memory, information processing and focus
  • Making mistakes at work

Every employer will have a sickness absence policy based on the Bradford Factor. Those who take frequent short term absences are more likely to be penalised compared to those who take few long term absences.

So generally speaking, if you’re ill – make it count! Don’t return to work until you’re better. For those who are unpaid during their sickness absence, clearly this has financial ramifications, however consider the potential wider impact and possible loss of revenue if you either stay at work, or return when you’re still unwell.

Many doctors fail to acknowledge for themselves that experiencing a mental health problem justifies taking time off work. We find it easier to report a physical ailment compared to a psychological one.

There is a reluctance to report mental health problems due to fear of the negative connotations this may have on work colleagues and their employer, and/or appearing to be ‘weak’ and ‘unable to cope’.

Medic Footprints is committed to supporting doctors’ wellbeing and opening up the conversation about sustaining both physical and mental wellness for an optimal personal and professional life.

So, let me leave you with one final question;


If you liked this article, take a look at: Dark Days for Doctors: Support When You Need It

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Abeyna Bubbers-Jones

Abeyna is the Founder & Director of Medic Footprints and a Consultant Physician in Occupational Health