In the Blog

The Sick Day Dilemma

January 22nd, 2008     by Elle E.     Comments

It’s 7am. You wake up with chills, body aches and a crazy sinus headache. You’ve been sweating and snotting all over your pillow. Burning sandpaper scrapes down your throat. Meetings are set. Deadlines loom.

Delirious with fever, you see an angel and a devil sitting on your shoulders. One tells you to call in sick and sleep it off. The other tells you to suck it up and go to work.

Which piece of advice did your devil give?

Whether we see calling in sick as smart or slack says a lot about how we value work vs. health. Two competing TV ads for cold and flu medication have me thinking about how illness fits, or doesn’t fit, into the workplace.

First there is the “Take a Benylin Day” ad, in which a woman debates “should I stay or should I go now” after waking up sick. No outfit can sass up how miserable she feels, and she ends up flopping in bed with a book.

Then there is an Advil Cold and Sinus commercial, in which a woman pops pills to clog up her schnoz so she can swim like a prostar and “go go go!” on with her high-impact lifestyle.

Benylin wants you to chillax; Advil wants you to suck it up. (Both of them want you to use drugs.)

Calling in sick is tough. In a culture where work is valued above all else, the stress of asking for a day off can outweigh the symptoms we seek to heal.

You Can Do It Put Your Back Into It The Advil commercial fills me with anxiety. It’s kind of like those tampon ads that want me to spend my period playing beach volley ball. What if I have cramps, my glands are sore and I just want to sleep? Will my boss expect me to pop an Advil and power swim in for that big meeting?

The Benylin Day paradigm also makes me nauseous. Are we so addicted to work that a catchy tagline is the only thing that can give us permission to slow down and heal through dedicated resting? Am I allowed to take a “Salt Water Gargle and Lemon Herbal Tea Day”? I long for the good old days when the flu meant a day to nap in a nest of blankets and pillows with clear fluids and trashy talk shows.

The Couch Office Another trend that makes me sick is the lucky office worker who gets a day to “work from home.” This policy is lose-lose. The hope is that if you set up your laptop on the couch you will beat that virus. In reality, your fluffy bunny slippers do not protect you from stressy emails, and you spend half an hour trying to explain to your co-worker where to find that missing file on your desk. Once I thought I was healing from pneumonia while I “worked from home.” The quality of my work was horrible and I became very ill before I smartened up, relaxed and let the world do without me for a little while.

Workin’ 9 to 5 While some struggle to get over their internal blocks to wellness, others have to face external policies that don’t allow for illness. Some hourly workers will lose pay if they are off sick, and their absence puts pressure on co-workers to pick up the slack.

In some customer service-based jobs I’ve worked in, the “calling in sick” cliche is met with such suspicion that HR will punish you if you return from one missed shift without a doctor’s note. This policy is based on misinformation and distrust. It assumes that if you are sick enough to skip work, you are sick enough to see a doctor. This is untrue for a basic cold or flu with no complications. In these cases, by the time you get up, call in sick, locate a walk-in clinic, take the bus down there, wait in line while a dozen sick people hack all over you, get the snide diagnosis that you “have a cold,” pay for the note (because yes, they cost at least $10), and get home again, you probably need another day to rest and heal. (Not to mention the time it will take to shake off whatever you picked up on the doorknob at the clinic.)

It’s that time of year again. When that drippy tickle down your throat morphs into a nice frothy cough, what will you do?

Tags: body politics, media savvy, on the job

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