Curled up on the couch watching old episodes of Fringe, I find myself thinking about the days of when I used to fret about taking time off for feeling ill. It had been several days since I caught the flu. I remembered exactly when I suspected I might catch it: I heard someone coughing frantically in a public bathroom, and looking a bit disheveled. The small space allowed an ease of airborne bacterial infection transmission, and I was crossing my fingers hoping that I didn't catch anything. I hadn't gotten the flu shot, and I was well aware that the vaccine was the only reliable thing that could keep me from getting the flu.
Like many in the United States, I used to be prone to sick days: the time off that employers "allow" employees to take care of their illnesses, or of any others in the family. I remember time after time watching fellow coworkers wring their hands, wondering if they could take a day or two to rest. I've seen my share of folks sit Lysol spray and Kleenex wipes near their computer monitors, while I inched away during their hacking cough fits. I felt miserable, and I'm sure they felt doubly so.
During those times, I would have memories of Michael Moore's Sicko, where he investigates different first-world countries compared to the United States and shares what healthcare systems look like in those regions. It was also the first time I learned about the health care systems in Canada, England, and even at Guantanamo Bay (yes, there's healthcare there, too). I was surprised to learn that their programs were fundamentally free and paid for by government entities or via a publicly funded healthcare system (here's a quick list of countries from the Commonwealth Fund's International Health Care System Profiles).
I was always taught that you hold off on seeking any medical care because getting anything done could set you back hundreds. And growing up in the projects, the only real healthcare we had besides regular checkups was going to the emergency room: because we knew it would be paid for by medicaid. Stopping in to see a primary care physician to check in on a fever, aches and pains, or the occasion bruise or cut would cost you.
So really, we held on until the last possible moment before having to be rushed to the hospital. Otherwise, my mother had enough medical training to even sew us up, if need be. (I'm being serious here. To this day, there are still a few sewing needles hanging around with burnt points from when impromptu triage was necessary. White cotton thread worked the best, so we always had a big spool of it laying around to soak in rubbing alcohol, if need be.)
But overall in my youth, I concentrated more on the number of days it took for me to get well than how many days I had to take. As I got older, I learned that many people didn't get to choose to stay home for a week or so because they had a cold, flu, or even chicken pox (which can be dangerous for adults who haven't had it in childhood). And in the age of folks who choose not to vaccinate their children against common childhood illnesses, there's a good chance that these illnesses could reach adult populations more now than before. Unfortunately, that could easily spread into the workplace and affect those who may have immune deficiency disorders.
Why do we force people to work when they're ill?
Some of the reasons why people still work while sick is the age old problem of having managers with antiquated work ethics. In the days where work was only performed at the job, and all the materials were there, it was easier to see when an employee has done his or her share. And that share was important to the bottom line.
Another problem is much simpler: employers don't provide paid sick leave. We all work for a living. Many of us work to specifically pay the bills associated with it. So, if an employer doesn't offer salaried time off for illness, many of us just simply skip it unless we're literally chained to the hospital bed.
Besides those two problems, the rest are highly psychological.
I suffered (and still recovering) from an intense dose of workaholism. According to a study done of addictions published by the National Institute of Health (NIH), an average 10% of United States adults identify as workaholics, with college-educated persons veering as high as 25%. Since that study in 2011, I shudder to think how much people like computer programmers might lean into that higher percentage. Being one myself, I'd say I remember more days than not of sitting in front of a computer for upwards of 12 hours at a time.
Workaholism sometimes comes coupled with the fear of being seen as lazy. An article in Psychology Today highlights that it's one of six main fears of the workaholic, the others being: failure, boredom, discovery, and self-discovery.
So how do we fix this mess?
Do we just throw caution to the wind? Trust and wait for employees to show up when they feel better?
First off, if you're not hiring trustworthy people, you're doing it wrong. Consider ditching the traditional interview questions and get people that really value what you offer. They'll appreciate you for longer, and be ready to come back when they can give their best work.
Second, instill a more lenient work from home policy. With well over half of U.S. homes having some sort of access to the internet (some cell phones come with a mobile hotspot... I'm using one this very second), many people can simply hop on their phones or laptops if an answer is needed right away. This, coupled with cross-training people, prevents anyone from feeling like they can't simply step away when they're feeling under the weather.
Last, but not least, have a common sense sick leave policy. Most illnesses like the flu take about a week to get over. And usually, a trip to the the doctor isn't necessary. However, anything longer might need a quick doctor's note saying that you're still under their care. Otherwise, take off what's needed.
So, hire the right people, polish up your work from home policies, and ditch the strict sick leave policy in favor for a more common sense approach. It can make an ill employee a lot more grateful, and your productivity won't suffer.