Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: It’s Hard to Be Ill in Academe

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How does a faculty member handle being sick in an academic workplace that does not generally "do" sick days akin to the 9-to-5 world? Someone has to teach, and the fixed part of a class schedule represents just a small portion of the actual labor involved.

Academics calculate the logistical and emotional math around "Am I too sick to … teach class/go to a meeting/hold office hours?" in very different ways. It depends, in part, on the institution and the departmental culture. It also depends on where you fall along the job-security spectrum that runs from contingent part-time instructor to tenured professor.

But dealing with illness on the job — and I’m focusing here on basic health woes, not on serious long-term diseases — is a fraught issue for all academics, who tend to have porous work/life boundaries, whatever their faculty rank.

This issue resonates with me more than usual lately, as I recently ended up in the emergency room with a broken right elbow, two gashes in my forehead, a banged-up knee, and some level of concussion. Consequently, as I have been recovering, I’ve had to navigate work while dealing with cognitive struggles and no use of my right arm. So it seemed an apt time to tackle the many questions and anxious emails I get from faculty members on the topic of how to cope with standard illnesses or minor injuries, such as these:

  • "I feel like I am coming down with something … but it’s early in the semester, and maybe I can get away with canceling one of my weekly graduate seminars during fall term. Canceling two would be really bad. Should I just power through today?"
  • "I think I took my medicine early enough that it won’t be a full-blown migraine, but I won’t know for another hour or so. In the meantime I need to drive to campus. Do I stay home or chance it?"
  • "I have literally lost my voice. Would coming in to campus and putting a movie on for 50 minutes look better than just canceling the class and telling students to watch the same documentary at home on YouTube?"
  • "I can get in to the specialist I need to see next week, but it’s during my class time — but she doesn’t have any other appointments until the end of next month. What should I do?"
  • "I was in a car accident and have cracked ribs. But I think I can get out of bed if I move very slowly, and it’s my first week of the semester at my new job. Can I afford to make that first impression?"

Do any of these scenarios resonate? Chances are they do for most faculty readers (well, I hope not that last one). It’s up to you to do the mental calculations involved in making a judgment call about when to work sick and when to take care of your basic health.

If we lived in a more humane version of neoliberal capitalism, one where sickness was not professionally penalized (Europe, I am looking longingly at much of you), all of those scenarios would be no-brainers. You rest and hopefully nip your virus in the bud, you don’t gamble on whether or not your migraine hits while you are on the road, you go see the specialist, you stay in bed as long as you need to, post-accident. But that is not the ethos in place on many U.S. college and university campuses, however much sense it makes from a public-health perspective.

So, given that reality, here are my suggestions.

Find out the actual rules for taking a day off. Some institutions may have informal procedures in which you have to find someone to cover your class and/or alert the department chair, who then taps a substitute. Other colleges have a formal policy in which you are supposed to call in sick to HR — of course sometimes no one ever follows that policy and it’s not enforced. Still other places might actually require a doctor’s note or other documentation when you are too sick to report to work. It is good to know the specific parameters up front and how much leeway you have (or not).

Next, figure out the informal expectations. What the institutional policies state and what your department expects may not be one and the same. If you are too sick to teach, does someone have to cover your class? Do you have to reschedule it? Is there a designated conflict-free time during the week for rescheduled classes? Can you "convert" an in-person class period into an online one and have that be sufficient? Do you have to actually do a virtual class in real-time via whatever electronic platform your campus uses? Or can you give students a compensatory assignment that still deals with the day’s learning goals? If you work in a campus culture that frowns on faculty members calling in sick and canceling class, you might feel pressured, however bad you’re feeling, to come to campus and show the video. If so, do two things: First, subtly make sure the students understand the great efforts you’re making on their behalf, and second, make sure all you do is sit sniffling while the video runs. Don’t stay to answer questions, or go back to your office, or check email, or anything else that might suck you into work when you should be taking care of your health.

Follow what others do in your department. If you are a new hire, talk with a trusted colleague who is at the same level of employment vulnerability as you, and who seems likely to have a sense of the internal culture (i.e., how much time can you take to recover without risking your reputation). Treat the information as a data point. If faculty members who are sick just skip class that day and don’t even mention it to the chair, and there are no formal rules stipulating that you have to call in sick — well, "when in Rome." If there is an informal understanding that instructors get one "freebie" — canceling one class session a semester for whatever reason — factor that into your calculations as you consider how bad you feel and whether it might get worse.

Weigh the personal and professional costs. How much extra work would you make for yourself by missing a class session? If it’s winter, and you are coming down with a cold, maybe it makes sense to power through the day and teach your last class rather than have to reschedule it on a "free" day when you might feel worse. These choices are infinitely more difficult for people with chronic, often invisible, illnesses who — out of fear of losing their jobs — literally self-harm by forcing themselves to work when they are past their limit.

Finally, don’t be a martyr. When you call a doctor’s office, the first thing the recording says is, "If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial 911." Use that same principle in monitoring your health. We live in a culture in which ignoring health issues and symptoms is normalized and even rewarded. As a faculty member, I personally witnessed colleagues engaging in life-threatening behaviors because they were so terrified of missing work. If you need to go to the ER or urgent care, please do so. Know what health services are available to you as a faculty member on your campus, and take full advantage of them. For cautionary tales, read these essays on "Not Taking Time Off" and on "Why I Collapsed on the Job."

Know that the default in academe is overwork and self-abuse, with varying degrees of bragging about it. Actively resist buying into that culture. Rest when and where you can. The more you give, the more academe will take from you.

For able-bodied academics, especially tenured ones with job security, keep in mind: Able bodies are a privilege, job security is a privilege, self-care is a privilege. Please be aware that not everyone around you on the faculty has those privileges.

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