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I work as a software developer, working for a client that is invoiced by the company I'm employed at. Yesterday I got sick, symptoms being fever & nausea.

With fever, the general treatment is rest. One might argue that software development is not a physical task and that I should be good to go with over-the-counter medication, but as my job is rather stressful, it is a physical task. When I sit on my chair at work, my heart rate is about 50% higher, when compared to sitting at home.

One day of rest at home is what usually does it for me. By rest I mean that I sit at my computer, watching Netflix and sleeping as much as I can, which is not much. If I'm just slightly sick, I often just deal with it & go to work, but getting better takes forever, which is my body telling me that I need to rest.

When I'm sick, I obviously perform a lot worse, shipping bugs that take forever to fix, and I'm having trouble on getting any actual work done. The client gets billed for whenever I'm at work, so I feel like the ethical thing to do is to stay at home when I feel like my performance is subpar.

The thing is, as a software developer, I have personal projects, mostly to learn & experiment, and I've sometimes worked on these projects when home sick. Before calling me a hypocrite, hear me out.

Personal projects do not feel like work to me. There's no stress so my heart rate is about the same as when watching a movie on Netflix.

So, is it ethical do to what I do? The client doesn't pay for my sick day off, but my employer does. The employer doesn't get any € out of it, but I get better at what I do, which turns into € in the long run, for both me and my employer.

Edit: My personal project repositories are hosted publicly, anyone can see changes made to them with timestamps.

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    Is this paid sick leave or some kind of not-quite-official excused absence where your boss says "it's okay, stay home and get better, but we'll still pay you"? – Herohtar Sep 5 '18 at 17:44
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lilienthal Sep 5 '18 at 20:34
  • You don't have PTO? – Tyler S. Loeper Sep 6 '18 at 16:52
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    BTW: Wow, never go to work if you have fever or if you are sick in general. First you need rest if you are I’ll, second you risk to infect other people. – Mirco Sep 10 '18 at 17:58

15 Answers 15

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Your personal projects aren't mission critical. So, if something goes wrong with them because you're not thinking clearly, or you work more slowly to get things done, no one but you cares about it.

When you're on sick leave, you shouldn't work - by implication, you're unfit to work because you're too sick to work effectively.

However, what you do in your own time while you recover is your own choice.

Obviously, what you don't do on your return to work is start talking about all the great work you've done on your personal projects...

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Snow Sep 5 '18 at 5:21
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    "However, what you do in your own time while you recover is your own choice." I'd add the caveat that doing something that will prolong the recovery is probably not appropriate. It doesn't seem like that's the case here, but it's worth adding for completeness's sake. – Daniel Sep 6 '18 at 13:16
  • @Snow In addition to this great answer, a big difference between work and being at home is that you're free to pick up and put down said projects as you wish. I'm sure we've all felt well enough to do a task while off sick, then quickly regretted it and retreated back to the sofa! – Dan Sep 10 '18 at 14:20
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It is always important to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

While there is nothing wrong with working on your project per se, an employer might take a very dim view if they note any time stamps showing you were doing work during your sick time.

I know I'd raise an eyebrow at that.

While realistically, the risk to your career is minimal, it may still give an appearance of impropriety. If you are in good standing at your job, it would likely be overlooked but if your employer is looking for an excuse to get rid of you, they could use it as an excuse.

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    So in other words: Don't git commit until you're fit. – kapex Sep 4 '18 at 16:53
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To a great degree you are at home sick because the company doesn’t want you to come in and infect everyone, and that is actually the biggest reason.

The other reason is that with some illnesses you will be unable to focus and think straight, and achieve little or actually cause more harm than good.

You seem to be effectively spending time to learn, which benefits your company. So no need for a bad conscience but don’t tell anything that could be misinterpreted.

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    Exactly. OP says "When I'm sick, I obviously perform a lot worse, shipping bugs that take forever to fix". But OP also "ships bugs" to coworkers from which they may need a take a long time to recover. – henning Sep 4 '18 at 13:50
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    Exactly. People often miss that a huge impetus for sick days should be to NOT infect others at work and cause even more loss of productivity. It's always annoying when people come to work when they're sick because they want to be seen as tough or macho and then get others sick. It's so rude. – CramerTV Sep 4 '18 at 16:33
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    If you’re talking about the flu, you are infectious for up to two weeks, well outside the window when you are too sick to work. Unless you are planning to take two weeks off, including days before your symptoms emerge, you are probably not going to prevent the virus spreading. – jl6 Sep 4 '18 at 17:55
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    This is spot on. You don't want to look like a skiver, but if it is already established that your medical leave is valid and genuine, then doing some computing while you're off is absolutely fine, if you feel up to it, and if you're learning job-related stuff then even better! I've had guys call in sick for a week but come back having read a pertinent book while they were off and I was impressed with their dedication. You don't have to force yourself to just lie in bed doing literally nothing, only because you're on medical leave. – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 5 '18 at 11:11
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    @jl6 While you may technically be infectious before you are symptomatic, you are far more infectious when you are symptomatic... especially when those symptoms include coughing or sneezing frequently. Shedding some viruses onto your keyboard isn't terribly likely to infect anyone else. Coughing all of the rest of the office, on the other hand, is quite likely to infect others. – reirab Sep 6 '18 at 2:45
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Something which I haven't seen in the other answers is:

If a company is paying for you to rest and get better but you perform actions which prolong your condition then that is something which could be considered unethical.

The reason that rest is the #1 recommendation for getting better is because it allows your body to concentrate all of it's resources into fighting that which makes you ill. The employer is paying you to fight your sickness.

I understand that you are more relaxed when coding at home but your brain is an organ which requires resources to work so those are resources which could have been used to fight your sickness

For the sake of math, if you are only 60% recovered for work tomorrow but you could have been 80-85% then an employer could argue that you did not use your sick time properly.

Realistically, an employer would not be on the lookout for such activity unless you actively start praising yourself to others about how much work you got done on your personal project during your sick time. A sick day isn't a suspicious act unless your employer is known to vehemently assume everyone is guilty.

As for the timestamps, you could always wait for a non-suspicious day to push your changes all at once.


Everything I said above is subject to discrepancy though.

Anecdote:

I'm no doctor and I am certainly not your employer but I've taken sick time (yes, I was sick) and did yard work all day but I felt like a brand new person the following morning.

Your mileage may vary.

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    This is the right answer, at least for Germany. When you are home on sick leave you are obligated to do whatever it is that is conductive to your healing process. Your physician decides. If they say bed rest then you have to stay in bed and do nothing. If they didn't specify bed rest, you can go grocery shopping and similar things. However, you should only exercise with the permission of your physician, and I'd count yard work as exercise here - and you'd probably get permission for yard work if your illness means you need to decompress from work stress. Can you code? Ask your physician! – Sumyrda Sep 4 '18 at 14:39
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    "The reason that rest is the #1 recommendation for getting better is because it allows your body to concentrate all of it's resources into fighting that which makes you ill." This is a reason in favor of working on personal projects! Mental and emotional health is tightly tied to physical health, so it's much better to do something gratifying and enjoyable while sick than it is to be bored and frustrated in a misguided attempt to save a little bit of physical energy. – Kevin Sep 4 '18 at 15:51
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    Sick days should be used when there is reasonable chance of infecting others. Working on personal projects while in 'quarantine' is perfectly acceptable. Sick days aren't JUST about recuperating. – CramerTV Sep 4 '18 at 16:36
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    Has the medical evidence on this changed? The last I've read, there is no evidence or research to suggest that being active, either physically or mentally has any affect on the recovery period for someone being sick. The entire premise of 'resting' is so that you do not make life decisions, or infect others. Not to recover faster. – Andrew T Finnell Sep 6 '18 at 17:22
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    @AndrewTFinnell I am not sure if you're looking for published research but the premise of my answer is that if an employer has an axe to grind then don't supply the grinding stone. – MonkeyZeus Sep 6 '18 at 17:30
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The reason for taking a sick day is to recover more quickly. I know that for myself, working on personal projects is very deeply gratifying, enjoyable, and destressing. And when someone feels happy, their health is better. I would go so far as to say that you should work on personal projects because the enjoyment you derive from them will mean you will recover more quickly and completely!


About a year ago, I became very ill and had to take more than half a week off from work. As I was first coming to terms with having to take time off and how much pain I was in from my sickness, I just started crying in my bed, dreading the upcoming days of being bored and miserable. I decided I wasn't going to put up with that and bought a video game I was interested in playing. As soon as I started playing, I felt much less anxious, and even though I was still very sick, I was pretty content for the next few days. When I went back to work, I was genuinely refreshed and happy, having spent several days resting up on my own terms. Had I not spent the week playing games because "it was unethical," I would have spent the week absolutely miserable and come back to work exhausted and deeply annoyed. That certainly wouldn't have done my employer any good!

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    Agreed. When I'm sick, I can't stand just laying there thinking about my illness. As long as I can move and think, I feel a lot better doing something, if anything just to pass time while I heal. – Clay07g Sep 4 '18 at 17:02
  • Has the medical community changed their opinion on this? Everything I've read suggests that not-resting has NO impact on recovery. This is asked in body building forums constantly and the answer is always the same. Working out while having the Flu has no impact on recovery period. – Andrew T Finnell Sep 6 '18 at 17:23
  • @AndrewTFinnell that's just not true. If you stress your body while having an infection you can worsen the infection. – mathreadler Sep 8 '18 at 8:12
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Although there are lots of good answers, I still miss an important point.

If you stay away from work for illness, you must not do anything that harms your recovery.

I think this is all to say. Do your personal projects harm your recovery? If not, then it is fine to pursue them.

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If you are sick you should not go to work, not only because you are not fit to work, but also to avoid spreading it to your colleagues, which would be much more expensive to your employer.

While at home, and assuming you really are sick, no one can limit you in your activities (provided they are not physically challenging, like moving heavy weights around). And if programming some personal coding projects is one of your hobby, so be it.

In some circumstances, someone may be coming to your place to make sure that you really are sick. Usually this happens if you are regularly sick or for prolonged sick-leave. But in those cases, they want to make sure that 1) you really are at home, 2) you are not working (paid job), and 3) you are not doing any physically requiring activity.

Note that if, due to your sickness, your programs are lousy, no one but yourself has anything to lose.

It might be good to keep in mind that if you do some paid freelance job, that would be a completely different question.

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    "While at home, no one can limit you in your activities." That's not entirely true. If someone notices you doing a little holiday trip or renovating your home while "sick" they might rise the question if your calling in sick was warranted. While coding private projects is nothing to worry about, clear cases of false sick days can be reason for a termination without notice. – Elmy Sep 4 '18 at 11:24
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    Since this is tagged "Europe", I'll add that (at least) in Germany, the usual ruling is that any strenuous activity that might delay your recovery can get you in trouble. If you're just gone for one day, that should not be an issue, but YMMV. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Sep 4 '18 at 14:17
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    @YElm The assumption is that they haven't lied about whether they're actually sick. If they're not really sick, that's a separate problem from what they're doing while they're out. – Barmar Sep 4 '18 at 18:20
  • @YElm being on a holiday trip kinds of defeat the "while at home". What I meant is that no one can force you to be bedridden, or watch TV while being sick. The OP has said themselves that they have fever, so I am assuming that they are not cheating their own health insurance (or company, depending you their contracts). – bilbo_pingouin Sep 4 '18 at 19:47
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When you stay home from work, you've got a variety of reasons depending on your illness.

  • Stress-free environment to recuperate in.
  • Easy access to medication
  • Close to family and others who can care for you
  • Physically weakened by illness
  • Avoiding infecting others (usually redundant, the infectious stages are often before you have visible symptoms)
  • Too ill to travel.

Not every combination of those actually precludes you working or even getting out of bed, just travelling.
So if your office doesn't have a policy on working from home, then there's no way that would be happening and it doesn't matter what you spend your time at home doing.
Regardless, you've booked a day to recover in your own way.
If that includes relaxing by writing personal code, that's no different to spending it writing a novel, or painting, or knitting.
That it's the same sort of task as you would do at work is irrelevant because its purpose that day isn't to be productive for work, it's purely to relax, keep yourself busy and keep your mind off the illness.

If you're concerned about being asked why you were "working" when you're supposed to be ill, then commenting that you find writing code for yourself therapeutic ought to be all the response you need.

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I wouldn't do that, if I were you.

The reason is not because it's not ethical, it is because you are tired. I am a software developer myself and I know that even though sitting on a chair all day isn't really physically tiring, however, it's mentally tiring as hell.

Giving you have the advantage to sit home and relax, make sure to do that. As much as your own personal projects aren't stressful, they can't pass by without any personal effort.

After that being said, you mentioned that your personal projects are public and timestamped. Even though it's not that much of a problem and you have the right to do whatever you want at home, it will raise some questions from your employer if ever found out. Something like that: Why would X be able to work at home but not at work while sick?

I would suggest that you actually get some rest and leave your personal projects aside. If you really must work on them because there's nothing else to do, make sure to do it quietly and without raising questions that you can avoid.

It is ethical in my opinion, but better be avoided.

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    "Why would X be able to work at home but not at work while sick?" If an employer ever asked me this, I'd point out that I would be more than happy to come into work if they would be happy for me to go have a sleep if/when I got too tired to continue working. That's the real difference nobody seems to be mentioning here - when you're doing work on your own time, nobody is going to care if you need to go watch TV, or have a nap, or go outside for an hour. That is not the case when you're in work (unless you have the best employer ever). – delinear Sep 4 '18 at 12:33
  • @delinear You are absolutely right, but not all employers are the same. Some might be curious and some might just already think like you said. – Paul Karam Sep 4 '18 at 12:37
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    Delinear's comment should be an answer. – Arluin Sep 5 '18 at 22:08
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The ethics of this depend on what you do for a job and what your personal project is.

For example, I took a sick day once because I was taking prescribed narcotic pain medication a day after a dental procedure.

Of course, my employer would not likely want me producing code under the influence of narcotics. Imagine them explaining that to an angry customer when a bug causes them to lose millions of dollars.

However, I was fine with me producing personal code in that state, and I did! After all, coding certainly wasn't going to somehow make me heal slower.

In my case, there was provably no harm done, and therefore completely ethical.

However....

Faking sick leave is still usually a fire-able offense. And it's possible your employer might misunderstand your situation as faking. As long as you truly weren't abusing sick leave, and remain honest, you'll likely be okay in terms of unlawful termination.

So also be mindful of your employer. Just because something is ethical doesn't mean your boss will see it that way, and sometimes it's more trouble than it's worth. And be aware that if you are in bad standing with your employer already, this might not do you any favors.

Keep in mind that if your "personal project" is actually an actively profiting business, it may not be considered a personal project. That is another case entirely.

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I agree with other answers saying it's ethically fine. You're coding on what is now your own time, you're physically able to do it despite being ill, and you're not infecting other employees. There's also the argument that when you're not at your best, it's okay for you to potentially mess up your own projects where they wouldn't want you messing up theirs.

To avoid the appearance of impropriety, are you able to store your changes elsewhere for now and commit them the day you return to work?

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    If it's ethically fine, OP shouldn't have to avoid committing them, which can be seen as shady. – GOATNine Sep 4 '18 at 12:46
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    Without making commits refactoring anything is going to be terrible, gotta have those "making progress" commits. Even if I were to squash it all into a huge chunk when I return to work it's going to look suspicious, making thousands of changes in one commit. – WorkplaceThrowaway Sep 4 '18 at 16:54
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I work as a software developer, working for a client that is invoiced by the company I'm employed at. Yesterday I got sick, symptoms being fever & nausea.

The client gets billed for whenever I'm at work, so I feel like the ethical thing to do is to stay at home when I feel like my performance is subpar.

Personal projects do not feel like work to me. There's no stress so my heart rate is about the same as when watching a movie on Netflix.

So, is it ethical do to what I do?

First, if you have heart disease and your work stress causes heart rate issues, you should find a new (less stressful) job. And if you don't have heart disease, then the fact that your heart beats faster while doing real work is not relevant.

From an ethical viewpoint ask yourself why you aren't just asking your employer if this would be okay. Is it because you assume your employer would disapprove, so you wouldn't want to say anything? What would you say to your employer if they discovered your sick day checkins? Thinking all that over should lead you to your ethical decision.

I get it. We all want to feel like a sick day should be a "snow day" or a "Ferris Beuller's Day Off". But doing personal work just like our real work seems to cross a line for many. And knowing that your employer might catch wind of your "sick day work" would be worrisome for many.

I always felt that my job when calling in sick is generally to get better. When I was sick, I wouldn't do work-style work at home. But I very, very seldom called in sick. And those are my personal ethics.

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    I don't think OP said they have Heart Disease, only that the personal projects don't cause stress in the same way work-projects would. – Ruadhan2300 Sep 4 '18 at 15:46
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    I run a marathon once in a year. My heart is just fine, thank you. There isn't a job in the world that wouldn't raise my heart rate. – WorkplaceThrowaway Sep 4 '18 at 16:52
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    I agree with Joe. If you are too sick to do the work, wouldn't that mean you are too sick to do the work? Would this not be akin to being a construction worker and saying you have a sore back and then re-roofing your own house on company time? – SaggingRufus Sep 4 '18 at 17:06
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    My body doesn't rest if it's keeping a high HR. If I don't leave the comfort of my own home and don't do any exercise while there, my HR doesn't go over 55, essentially keeping my body in "rest mode". Where as in at work it's it's constantly hitting 85, which to me, is about the same as jogging at a medium pace. Ever try jogging for 8 hours? It's not just about the muscles in your body, the heart plays a big part. – WorkplaceThrowaway Sep 4 '18 at 19:42
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Legally

Your insurance or government is paying you to recover. You are simply paid for 1) not getting to workplace, 2) not doing anything that may make your health worse, 3) follow doctor's notes to recover and 4) avoid infecting others. Going out in the cold weather may harm you when you are already sick, as an example.

You are not supposed to be physically in the bed and get up only to attend the bathroom. And even if your labour regulation allows you to exit home in certain time windows (e.g. to buy grocery at the nearest store, because you must continue to feed) you are still supposed not to do anything potentially harmful for yourself and others.

Also, according to labour regulation and customer agreement, your employer is not likely paying you for your absence, so your sick days won't affect the budget. Your employer should then not be even interested in what you are doing on those days.

Of course, by record of media, your public actions may affect your career up to termination if you are found to be violating the rules. It happened that someone had a party on a sick day and posted photos on Facebook, violating rule 2.

While I am no doctor:

  1. Sitting next to a computer doesn't make recovery harder or longer upon the sympthoms you showed (and everybody here had)
  2. You will likely be working at a slower rate than your normal performance. Since these activities are out of budget, it's your business
  3. Upon an infective disease (e.g. flu), your absence from workplace is a protection to your coworkers

Ethically

Drawing a red line, which you shouldn't cross, is not easy and up to one's sensitivity.

You correctly said that your online presence leaves a public and permanent trace. Myself could even be writing this post on a sick day, with timestamp printed on the page.

Ideally, if your online activities prove that you have worked as much or more than what you would do (in terms of productivity, e.g. lines of code, finished issues, etc.) then if someone finds such evidence you will be likely questioned on your ability to return work earlier, or at all about your absence.

In such a situation, you may feel like to disclose details you normally won't share in order to justify yourself. For example privacy laws may deny the doctor from disclosing the diagnosis to your employer, but you may then want to justify yourself "Boss, I was recovering from flu which is contagious".

Your boss's or customer's temperament is critical in the ethical aspect of this question. If they are strongly convinced that a sick day must be spent in the bed with physical abstinence from any intellectual activity, then they may choose to consider that in future reviews and you can do little to change their iron minds.

Bottom line

You are on the right side. Remember yourself that volunteering personal projects is a low priority task. On a sick day, you will probably experience a lot of interruptions at home that will look unprofessional at work.

In my opinion, your ethics is safe and you can go to bed happy tonight. But if your employer or customer are picky on what you do on a sick day, that is another issue. In that case, you may choose for the future to conduct private activities with a nickname in greek letters using a character from Neverwinter Nights as an avatar in order to be anonymous to your boss.

  • Much of this answer sounds like legal advice, which isn't allowed here. – Andy Sep 5 '18 at 21:21
1

I have a small anecdote for you (German jurisdiction)

An employee of my former company called in sick. He was seen partying at a disco the same day, by one of his superiors. He was then immediately dismissed the next day. He filed a complaint for wrongful dismissal.

The hearing in essence went something like this:

Judge: (to my boss) Did the employee give you a doctor´s sick note?

Boss: Yes, but he obviously want sick.

Judge: Do you have a medical degree, so you can judge his condition?

Boss: No ...

Result: He had to be rehired and reimbursed for the missed wages during the time he was not allowed to work.

What does that tell us: At least under German jurisdiction, legally, you are very well protected to do what you see fit, as long as you have a doctor´s note.

  • There was a particular case in Germany where a termination was legal. Apparently that was in part due to the doctor's note including a reference to avoid low temperatures. And the employee went to an outdoor party... at -5 °C... And that was seen by the court as inhibiting the recovery (genesungswidrig). – Zulan Sep 10 '18 at 14:08
0

There's nothing wrong with working on your personal projects even on sick leave, as long as it doesn't affect your own recovery efforts. It's even more beneficial for you and your employer as whatever learning you do can eventually translate to your performance at work. Your ethics aren't compromised at all.

That said, it is better to be safe and not do anything that can be misunderstood as misuse of a sick leave. Keep working on your personal projects even on sick leave, but don't leave anything that can make it look like you're misusing your leave, as it's understood that you are taking your leave to recover, not for some other reason.

Store your work elsewhere and commit at a later, safer date.

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