Why Are You Really Taking That Sick Day? By Cheryl Mayberry McKissack & Sheryl Huggins

Why Are You Really Taking That Sick Day? Is it because you absolutely need a break from job-related stress? There are better ways to cope.

Have you ever taken a sick day from work because you’re sick and tired of the stress your job brings? According to the American Psychological Association, one in four American workers has called in sick or taken a “mental health day” as a result of work-related stress.

Perhaps you took that sick time to “play hooky” on a sunny day and head to the beach; or maybe you simply buried your head under the covers and caught up on some much-needed sleep. But maybe the pressure of office politics, perpetual deadlines, and looming layoffs really made you ill that day. According to St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance, problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor.

For black professionals, the link between workplace stress and health can be especially strong. “The reality of being black in America today creates experiences of anxiety and stress,” says Toby Thompkins, an executive coach and organizational development consultant based in New York City. Workplace discrimination and isolation can be a part of that reality. However, “a big part of our self-worth is built around ability to deal with stress, to ‘make it happen,’ to rise above whatever particular sort of struggle or obstacle that we have, so we don’t identify stress as the killer that it is,” he explains.

This problem is especially acute among Black women, who are conditioned to define themselves according to their ability to handle life’s burdens, says Thompkins, who is also the author of The Real Lives of Strong Black Women: Transcending Myths, Reclaiming Joy (Agate, $26.50). It’s no wonder that nearly three in ten of Black women responding to a 2004 NiaPulse survey reported feeling “stressed out” daily.

Regardless of gender, physical disorders such as high blood pressure and diabetes, which occur at disproportionately higher rates in African Americans than in the general population, can result from workplace stress. Depression and mental health problems, conditions for which blacks are less likely to be treated, can also result.

“We don’t recognize that stress is the precursor to depression in our lives,” says Thompkins. The anger that we have about not being able to handle stress that in many cases happens because we’re black people, is turned inward. And then when it’s turned inward, it becomes depression.”

If you believe you are depressed, you should seek help from a mental health professional. If you believe you’re not there yet, but that the “mental health days” are starting to pile up, there are some measures Thompkins recommends for handling workplace stress:

Get a mentor. “You need someone who will not only help you manage your career, but help you adopt the appropriate coping mechanisms when you are confronted with daily politics and realities of the workplace,” says Thompkins. “You need that person with whom you can pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s go have coffee,’  or ‘Let’s go take a walk around the block,'” and talk about what’s bothering you. “That person doesn’t have to be the one who’s going to help you get the promotion. It can be the person you trust on your floor, or your friend across town.”

Get a career coach if you’re going through a career transition. “When you get a job promotion, move to a new company, or go to a new department and you need to figure out the rules, get a coach to help with the transition period,” says Thompkins. Coaches can be especially helpful to black professionals, who are less likely to have an informal network of people they can trust to show them the ropes, thereby easing the stress of transitions.

Get unplugged. We use our Blackberries and iPhones to stay in constant communication with colleagues and friends, but don’t be so available to others that you aren’t available to yourself. Thompkins says his own recent experience with a stress-related health crisis drove this point home for him. “I’m a chronic nurturer, so I was investing a lot of time in helping other people to go forward, which meant that I didn’t have time for myself,” he explains. After he landed in the hospital, he realized he had to redefine boundaries with the people in his life, including when he could be reached. “I had to learn how to let phone calls go to voicemail. Leaving the phone on all the time is like leaving a source of stress running in your life, 24 hours a day.”

Get outside! “Get in touch with nature. Black folks, we don’t do that,” says Thompkins. Head to the nearest park, or go golfing. “A lot of our non-black colleagues are spending their weekends on bikes, doing things that enable them to release stress and build a reserve for the week that follows,” he explains. “Our way of doing that is to go to church on Sunday morning. At best, we strengthen ourselves spiritually, but that doesn’t take care of the emotional and the physical part if the equation. So if you can spend several hours in church on Sunday, you can spend 30 minutes walking around the neighborhood.”

Remember, the ability to handle stress is not a badge of honor. It’s simply what you must have in order to take good care of yourself.

Cheryl Mayberry McKissack and Sheryl Huggins are coeditors of The Nia Guide For Black Women series of self-improvement books, including Balancing Work and Life (Agate Publishing, $12.95). Mayberry McKissack is also founder and CEO of Nia Enterprises, LLC, a Chicago-based company providing research and marketing services focused on Black women and families. Nia Enterprises also publishes NiaOnline (www.niaonline.com) of which Huggins is editor-in-chief.