Do you remember “back in the old days”, pre-COVID-19, when you (almost always) had enough sick leave to last the whole year? When you would gaze at your remaining sick-leave balance in December and wish it was exchangeable for annual leave because there was just so much of it? OK, perhaps I’m overstating things! But no matter your experiences with this in the past, recent reports suggest the phenomenon of spare sick leave is about to become a rare thing for many New Zealanders.

As of June 2022, around 20 percent of New Zealanders have reported positive COVID-19 results, most within the space of 3 months. More Kiwis are testing positive for the virus each day, and, with a recovery period of approximately 2-6 weeks, this is likely to put a good deal of strain on employees’ sick-leave balances.

But wait, there’s more! With COVID-19 safety measures in place over the last couple of years, flu season in 2021 was almost non-existent. In fact, while in the midst of the pandemic, many of us (myself included) had half-forgotten that other flu-like illnesses were still around. Unfortunately, as restrictions begin to ease, flu season has crept back in as we open our borders, travel around and use masks less. And, with worrying phrases like “tri-demic” floating around the media, experts are warning that this year will be a doozy.  

Facing this triple-whammy of potential illnesses, on top of an already depleted sick-leave balance, the harsh reality is that many Kiwis may find themselves running out of sick leave and needing to return to work before they are fully recovered. It turns out that, particularly for long forms of illnesses like COVID-19, there may be a hulking grey area between government-mandated recovery periods and feeling 100% well (perhaps even several months). So, for every Kiwi who finds themselves returning from sick leave still feeling a little worse for wear, what can we do to manage our waning energy levels, and continue to make it through the workday?

If you (or your employees) have sick leave and really need it, take it and encourage others to do so, too

This should go without saying, but if you are feeling unwell and have a little sick leave left, it is important to take the time off to recover. Presenteeism, defined as “attending work whilst ill and therefore not performing at full ability”, is recognised as occurring at all levels of an organisation (including leaders, teams, and individuals), and has been linked to negative physical, psychological, and organisational outcomes such as fatigue, tension, anxiety, and loss of productivity. 

What’s more, a recent survey of New Zealanders revealed that working from home has increased hesitancy around taking sick days. Bearing this in mind, if your workplace is utilising a work-from-home or hybrid working arrangement, reinforce to your employees that taking sick days is just as important when you’re working from home.

Research shows that leader presenteeism significantly influences employee presenteeism and sick leave. So, to encourage your employees to take time off when unwell, be a role model for the behaviour you want to see – make sure that you are also taking time out when you need it. 

Prioritise a little afternoon shut-eye

It may seem unconventional but, if you (like me) get to around 2 in the afternoon and feel yourself nodding off at your desk, science suggests that giving in to the urge may be beneficial. Sleep researchers have discovered that having a quick power nap during the afternoon can improve performance in a number of key areas, including better mood, reaction time, and logical reasoning. 

Luckily for those of us with limited lunchbreaks, the ideal power-nap timeframe appears to be around 15-30 minutes, allowing you to reap the benefits while still having enough time to grab a sandwich. As a people leader you may wish to go big and look into the potential for sanctioned nap-breaks or flexibility in working arrangements (e.g. work-from home days) to allow employees to catch some permitted z’s in comfort.

Take brief breaks during the workday

Whether you are suffering from symptoms of long COVID or the tail-end of a regular nasty cold, you may find yourself experiencing some nagging physical and psychological pain-points that make it harder to go about your workday. Taking long COVID as an example, people may find themselves back at work whilst experiencing uncomfortable symptoms such as headaches, brain fog, and difficulty concentrating. 

It is important to check in with your doctor regarding symptoms you are worried about, or any that are getting worse. In the meantime, for those of us who have to work, taking brief breaks throughout the day could give you the relief you need to keep yourself on an even keel. 

Mini-breaks during the day support our wellbeing and have even been found to increase productivity. The great thing about these types of breaks is that they only need to last a couple of minutes and can be as simple as standing up and having a good stretch to relax your muscles, taking a walk to source your daily dose of hot beverage, or having a quick chat/laugh with your favourite co-worker. If you need help to remember to take a break, try setting yourself a break-reminder or scheduling mini-breaks on your work calendar.

Be kind to yourself

The last thing we need when struggling through less-than-ideal health and wellbeing is the added strain of self-criticism. By working while under the weather, we are already carrying a heavier load than usual – so it is important to be mindful of this extra burden, and to act as our own cheerleaders at work. 

For many people (hello, fellow worriers and perfectionists!), being kind to yourself can be tricky. But the benefits of self-compassion are hard to ignore. Not only is self-compassion important for happiness and psychological wellbeing, exercises in self-compassion have been shown to lower our heart rate and calm our body’s threat response, potentially helping to prevent damage to the immune system.

Unsure where to start? In his new book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Harvard psychologist Christopher Germer has set out a number of useful exercises for increasing compassion towards ourselves. So, if you’re labouring away under a cloud of self-deprecation, we would recommend checking out the book or (for a quick peek) this great summary by Harvard Health Publishing. 

We are currently facing an unprecedented drain on sick-leave balances due to COVID-19 and other seasonal illnesses. While work is underway to develop appropriate support for long-term illnesses like long COVID, many New Zealanders are finding themselves at work under less-than-ideal conditions. We hope this article gave you a few ideas to help yourself and/or your employees through this year’s flu season. If you liked this article, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter and read our other articles here.