THE WORK ETHIC: You make me sick


Extreme sneezing: the newest Olympic sport

Oh no! You’re still sick but you came back to work anyway…


I’ve been surrounded by illness for at least a fortnight now. Everywhere I go there’s someone with a cold or flu or a hacking cough; snot, phlegm and various other fluids flow freely from every orifice as they shuffle about, forlornly attempting to carry on with their daily lives. And that inevitably means taking their germs into the office – oh hurrah. I’ve heard enough extreme nose-blowing over the past two weeks to convince me it’s been sanctioned as an official Olympic sport for the London games. I held out a somewhat defiant hope that I’d avoid being sucked into that dark, depressing vortex of infirmity, what with all my (mostly) healthy living of late, but no. Just as I was preparing to head away for the weekend to catch up with two of my oldest friends, I too have been felled by the dreaded lurgy.

If sharing really is caring, this is the kind of caring I could happily go without.

I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve managed over the years but, throughout, there’s one thing I’ve always tried to stay consistent about: sick leave. Whenever I know someone’s under the weather, I actively discourage them from coming to work. If I don’t know they’re ill until they’re already at work, I just as actively discourage them from staying. Too many workplaces these days foster a culture of ‘work or be dead’. Whether it’s a company-wide policy or something initiated at individual levels of management, everybody’s worked for a ‘Sick Leave nazi’ at some point. You know the type: they’re usually kinda small-ish in physical stature and probably smaller in professional stature than they’d care to be; they sometimes need to add cushions to their gas-lift chairs just to get a full view of their desk; they enjoy issuing directives and ultimatums to their underlings and love being seen to follow ‘the process’, doing everything by the book, to the letter, every T dotted and every I crossed. And they frequently extol the virtues of “thinking outside the square” and other such corporate bollocks, whilst rarely being capable of doing so themselves. The ‘Sick Leave nazi’ is hugely responsible for the spread of illness through the office environment – as are the organisations that allow them to continue in the practice unchecked.

But it’s not just people unfortunate enough to report to these little Sick Leave Hitlers who struggle into work when they really shouldn’t be there. Those on tight deadlines, staff wrapping up large projects, anyone with a sense of indispensability that’s disproportionate to their true function in the broader scheme of things… they all do it.

Some do it with the very best of intentions, their flawless work ethic leading them to conclude “hey, I’m not dead so I’m going to work”. Dead they may not be, but they’re almost always highly contagious. They disgorge their germs to the four corners of the office faster than the nearest colleague can say “oh my God you sound terrible, why did you come in today?”. Like a human weapon of mass destruction, these loyal and committed souls unwittingly pick off their colleagues, one by one, until within only a matter of days whole teams and departments, significant chunks of an entire business, are decimated. No they weren’t dead, but that kind of loyalty can be pretty destructive.

Meanwhile some people go to work when they’re sick simply because their employer’s Sick Leave policies – or those who enforce them – introduce a staggering lack of flexibility into a process which should be in place to help staff get better and get back as quickly as possible. Some of these policies make not going to work so arduous a task that it’s often simpler for people who are genuinely unwell to just suck it up and go to work, despite knowing that the most productive thing they’ll do all day is infect everyone else! Like some bizarre antithesis of the law, with its presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, such is the sense of suspicion surrounding sick leave that some policies have staff jumping through hoops just to take a day in bed with a nasty head cold.

Of course it’s mostly thanks to the great Australian tradition of ‘the sickie’ that the sense of suspicion exists at all. Stereotypes generally come about for a reason and we’ve all worked with someone who takes more sick days in a year than the rest of the team combined. But I’m an individual – as opposed to a team, a statistic or a stereotype; so what’s the big deal if I’ve had a handful of days off throughout the year and didn’t get a medical certificate for any of them? So I’m under the weather on a Friday or a Monday – who cares!? I expect my management to know who I am, how I work and what value I add to the organisation and for them to make decisions on that basis, rather than relying on some faceless HR policy to direct their thought processes. Thankfully I’ve been lucky enough to work for numerous bosses over the years who’ve always done the former, but how is it for those who aren’t so lucky?


Disgorging bacteria to the four corners of the office, like a human sprinkler…

Just say you had a head cold or a mild flu: you know you could probably achieve at least some level of productivity in the office, but in the state you’re in now the idea of just getting there is more daunting than the idea of actually being there; besides which, you’re coughing and sneezing more diseased particles into the air than you’d thought was humanly possible, making you extremely contagious; let’s also say that this was maybe the fourth or fifth time in a year that you’d had to do this. Without the very good fortune of flexible management, to ensure payment of sick leave benefits for the day you might be expected to go to your GP (if you can actually get in and if you can afford the fee) and obtain a medical certificate confirming your inability to perform your usual duties. What’s utterly ludicrous about this proposition is that anyone who’s ever been to a GP knows that medical certificates are doled out with as much consideration as that uni student on the street gives to handing out free coffee vouchers. They typically only give a generic definition to your health woes – ‘medical condition’ or something similarly meaningless – or, indeed, they’ll state whatever you want the Doctor to say you’re suffering from and whatever time you want to be deemed unfit for the aforementioned usual duties.

Of all the time you could’ve spent convalescing at home, attempting to be sufficiently recovered to return to work and full productivity as quickly as possible, you instead spend five hours in a Medical Centre waiting room, a sorry gathering of other sickly folk coughing and spattering their own bacteria all over you, before finally ‘consulting’ with a GP for all of about seven minutes about a condition you already knew you had and which you also already knew the GP would neither be able do anything about, nor suggest anything you could do differently to what you’d already done to manage your symptoms. To top it all off, you then have to cough up – pun intended – for a $60 consultation fee at the end of it all! To describe it as an absurd exercise in bureaucratic box-ticking would be too kind.

It’s a truly awful culture of fear and suspicion, of staff feeling they’re ‘over a barrel’, and it exists – to greater and lesser degrees – almost everywhere.At least from the perspective of office-bound workers in 2012, that everyone doesn’t automatically have the option of working from practically anywhere is probably the biggest single point of failure in this whole situation. Unless there’s a very specific reason for someone having to be in the office, or for not being able to undertake the specific functions of their role from outside of the office, organisations are missing out in a big way and on so many levels.

Meanwhile, as I sit here all stuffed up in the head, sore throat, aching sinuses, snotty nose and silly voice, I reflect on the people who choked and spluttered their way into my little piece of the universe over the past fortnight and I have only one thing to say to them: your work ethic makes me sick!