The Blog

Coming to Work Sick Is a Disease

Our reasons for dragging ourselves to the office when sick reveal a cultural obsession with "hard work." A day off feels lazy rather than restorative. We falsely equate long hours with good work. And our mania is sending the wrong message to corporations and policymakers.
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Last week, I went to work sick. I'm battling my second cold in a month and felt I had already overplayed my work-from-home card. I didn't want to e-mail yet another iteration of "I'm walking mucus" to my boss, press refresh 1,000 times and neurotically analyze the response ("does 'sure' mean he's mad at me?") When it comes to taking a sick day, our lives turn into Woody Allen movies.

But the real disease is our inability to rest. A U.S. survey by Redshift Research found that about 60 per cent of workers with the flu show up to work. A survey by the cold medicine company Benylin (yes, they've got a vested interest in this statistic) found that 62 per cent of Canadians go to work when they're sick. On a policy level, there's not much encouragement to rest up either. Last September, the government threatened to slash public workers' sick days from 15 to five. In Ontario, there's no legal requirement for companies to pay for an employee's time off due to illness.

From top to bottom, the message is clear: sickness is a weakness and hard workers should ignore a sore throat. This masochistic culture creates stress and burnout for office workers. For minimum wage and service workers, the people whose employers most often don't spring for paid sick days, many feel they must choose between their health and job security.

I'm a great example of what not to do. As I write this my eardrum feels like a clogged sink and my head is throbbing like a loud bass in a small car. My excuse is a deadline, but we come up with all sorts of reasons to justify working while sick. Although the Redshift survey showed that bosses prefer you keep the germs at home, workers responded that they felt pressure to show up at the office. Team (achoo) spirit! Just over a third thought going to work under the weather would make them seem extra motivated.

Our reasons for dragging ourselves to the office reveal a cultural obsession with "hard work." A day off feels lazy rather than restorative. "Perhaps we all share a common ailment of the workplace," wrote Daniel Engber in The New York Times, "a condition whose major symptom is the morbid fear of downtime." Workplace advisor Right Management noted that at the end of 2013, almost 70 per cent of North Americans had not taken all of their vacation time. As a result we burn out. We're so consumed with the idea of hard work that we can't see how sometimes the most productive thing to do is rest. We falsely equate long hours with good work. And our mania is sending the wrong message to corporations and policymakers.

While office workers are usually masters of their own demise - they often have paid sick days but choose not to take them - too many with precarious jobs don't feel they have the option to stay home. Those who receive paid sick days should not only take them; they should advocate for all workers to have the same right.

Kendra Coulter, an associate professor at the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University told CBC's The Current that people with jobs that are "low-paid ... part-time and erratic in terms of the schedules" are usually the ones who don't receive paid sick days (every employer of a company with at least 50 people is legally entitled to 10 unpaid personal days.) In other words, the people who need money the most. A few days without pay could mean a missed phone bill or going without proper food. Or it could mean losing their income entirely.

When actor Jacob Insley called in sick for his restaurant shift because of strep throat he lost his job. Insley told The Current "They pulled me completely off the schedule, deleted me from any of the online message boards that the company uses for communication ... and I was pretty much just, I guess, jobless." Obviously small businesses in particular are crunched for staff. But Coulter says 58 per cent of minimum wage earners work for large employers. There should be more stringent policies to protect sick workers from this type of job insecurity.

The idea that hard workers "show up" is a danger to our physical and mental health. As employees, we need to accept the idea that rest can be productive. Those with paid sick days should use them. Those who can work from home should do so. We need to send the message to corporations and policymakers that penalizing staff for being human is unacceptable. That way, there will be less burnout. And fewer people will worry about their bank accounts when they get the flu.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.


Which Canadians Take The Most Sick Days?