Why Can't We Keep Our Sick Asses at Home? 


Welcome to cold and flu season, in which our bodies are attacked by germs and our emotions by guilt-mongering bosses and coworkers.

At some point or another, you’re going to get sick, and then you’re going to have decide whether you’re well enough to go in or not. But how you feel isn’t the only factor here, of course! Equally if not more important is how much shit you’ll get for staying home, depending on the sort of place you work.

There are basically only two kinds of places to work when you get sick: There’s the kind that is super sympathetic, where your boss says, “Stay home! Feel better! Don’t get us sick!” and actually means it. Then there’s the other kind, the kind that will vibe you within an inch of your life for being sick. Sometimes they will still says “Stay home! Feel better! Don’t get us sick!” But when you go back to work everyone is mad at you, or acts like you got away with something. Because they were lying about it being okay for you take off.

Over at Science of Us, Jesse Singal explains a related distinction: the two types of people who go in to work when they’re sick. It’s called presenteeism, and it occurs in either people who have no choice, or people who are workaholics. According to Singal, researchers at Concordia University found the following factors associated with showing up to work sick:

  • general ill health
  • constraints on absenteeism (e.g., strict absence policies, job insecurity)
  • elevated job demands and felt stress
  • lack of job and personal resources (e.g., low support and low optimism)
  • negative relational experiences (e.g., perceived discrimination)
  • positive attitudes (satisfaction, engagement, commitment)

So clearly, always being sick due to chronic health issues means work is unavoidable if you want to stay employed. And there are certainly people who have no paid time off or sick time in the first place, so not working means not earning, and for most of us, that’s simply not an option. Then there is the sort of work you do where not everyone can perform your job on short notice, so depending on whether there are deadlines that won’t pause, reports that must be presented, and so on, you may simply have to perform regardless of your health. And certainly some people just love their work, and can’t seem to stay away from the office.

But many people are trudging in to work when they should be in bed because their employer and/or colleagues are simply shitty about allowing for sick time. Singal notes that the research takeaway here is: “if you want workers to do the right thing and stay home when they’re sick, it would be best to downplay the possibility that they’ll be somehow punished for doing so.”

And yet this highly punitive attitude towards sick days is so common. With a few exceptions, I’ve worked mostly at places that were absolutely tyrannical about sick days. Ironically, the places that were the least hospitable to taking it easy to heal were food service jobs, where you’d think they would have a vested interest in keeping germs at bay. (The truth is, they don’t, and these stories attest to that in disturbing detail).

As I moved toward professional office work, I found that even when paid sick days existed, they could still be nearly impossible to take. At some jobs, employees were openly gossiped about for taking sick time, because they were believed to not really be sick, or assumed to be lazy and unreliable for catching the flu. These were the sorts of jobs where you could feel chained to your desk, and the stress of the work and the lack of good attitudes toward self-care all but guaranteed you’d get sick more often.

Last we checked, human beings have not become fully immune to viruses and bacteria. As a result, most health experts recommend staying home when you’re sick for a lot of reasons, most of which ought to be of as much or more concern to your employer. Obviously, if you’re contagious (here’s a handy chart to help determine that), you’re risking getting more people sick, thus leading to more sick time taken, thus leading to lower productivity, thus leading to less money. Obviously, if you’re taking meds that make you woozy or unable to perform your job, that can complicate things.

This is all so basic, and yet the people who really need to be better informed about the consequences of working while sick are not employees, but employers, who don’t seem able to treat their employees like adults capable of making this decision for themselves. If they did, they would understand that sometimes you’re simply too sick to work, and it is not that big of a deal. A healthy worker is a better, more productive, and happier worker.

But there’s another category of people we should probably highlight here: People who aren’t necessarily workaholics, but have real reason to fear that missing work due to illness can fuck with their careers. In a piece last year at the New York Post, Virginia Backaitis pointed to research that 90 percent of American workers have gone to work sick, and that 42 percent are doing so out of a fear of getting too far behind or missing deadlines that will ultimately bar them from getting ahead.

But it’s also likely due to a still lingering post-recession climate of generalized fear. “People want to make sure they’re not forgotten, and they want to show they’re committed to the cause,” a branch manager told Backaitas. “To some, showing up to work every day translates to job security.”

There’s no easy solution to this, but for those of us who do have the option to take sick days—fucking do it. Life isn’t so good when you’re run ragged.

Gif via USA/Dumbo.

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