Dealing with long term sickness guilt

Back in January this year I found myself off work for 3 months. Up until this point my sickness record had been impeccable (humble brag) and don’t think I had a sick day logged in the past 5 years. I mean, I had just had major surgery so knew there was going to be some recovery time. But what I hadn’t accounted for was the fact that it would be 3 months, and what I certainly didn’t account for was the long term sickness guilt I felt with being off.

I will point out instantly that the guilt was purely self inflicted and my work were brilliant at keeping in touch with me on a personal level and reiterating that I wasn’t to come back until I felt absolutely ready. It was all in my head, especially in the later stages of the leave.

In the first 6 weeks, which was what my original sick note was for there was little to no guilt. I was still physically recovering, moving around the house very slowly, and sleeping in the afternoon most days. At the six week point I rang my GP as I knew I would need at least another couple of weeks off, if nothing else but to have two weeks to wean myself off the daily naps. I was equally shocked and relieved when they signed me off for a further 6 weeks. I didn’t feel nearly ready enough to go back but also felt extremely guilty when I was able to go out for lunches with friends, go on daily walks and, just sitting on the sofa watching Greys Anatomy, by and large felt fine.

Here’s the difference though. I wasn’t fine. Those walks or lunches out were often followed y 2 hour nap on the sofa. The Greys Anatomy I was watching needed the subtitles on as it was the only way I could concentrate without falling asleep. I had visions in the later stages of my recovery of being a productive goddess getting my blog updated and completely inspired to write with all this time on my hands. But it was the last thing I wanted to do, I couldn’t keep a straight thought in my head for more than 20 seconds. I couldn’t even concentrate on something I love doing as a hobby – how on earth was I supposed to go back to work and concentrate for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week?

The guilt was all perception based. In social media it may have looked like I was recovering well, and by and large I was, but your social media is your highlights reel isn’t it? You don’t always put everything on there – even though I was trying to be as honest as possible about how I was feeling. I was petrified though that people would think I was taking the mick with being off for so long. One particular day at the end of March I went out for lunch with Carrie, Emma and Sophie for Carrie’s birthday and when we went back to Carrie’s for cake Emma commented that I suddenly went grey and was struggling to stay awake and keep up with the conversation.

I got some really good advice about all of this while I was off which I would like to pass on to you now if you’re struggling with long term sickness guilt: You’re off sick from work, not from life. There is a big difference between sitting on the sofa with a coffee watching telly and feeling ok, and sitting up at a desk all day having to make decisions. The 9 to 5 will always be there waiting for you when you get back, and once you’re back, you’re back. So you may as well take the time and make sure you’re completely better, in mind as well as body, before going back.

I went back to work on 2nd May 2023 and for the first week was on a phased return so only worked mornings to get through all my emails and catch up with people I needed to. I think that helped loads, particularly as I contracted COVID the week I was due back and that, mixed with the shock of being back at work made me extremely tired. I’m still not entirely sure I went back at the right time though as for weeks afterwards I was struggling with memory and concentration but now, 4 months later I think I’m gradually getting there again. And, as predicted, it’s like I never left.


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