ATLANTA — It finally happened. We tried our best. It was a heck of a run. But alas, the bogeyman finally darkened our doorstep.
The microscopic menace, COVID-19, finally made its way into our home. My wife was feeling tired and developed a cough. She tested positive the next day.
As you can imagine, both of us were upset and frustrated. We had made it through the worst part of the pandemic — when there was no vaccine — without contracting it. We both got vaccinated. Then we got boosted. We thought we were good.
But as you know, COVID is an invisible nemesis. Without everyone testing regularly, who knows who has it and who does not? COVID is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
My wife was frustrated for an additional reason. She tested positive on a Sunday. That upcoming week was an incredibly important one.
My wife is an educator. As I’m sure every parent knows, summer is almost over. During this time, schools are preparing for the school year with staff work sessions. Attendance is mandatory as these sessions set the tone for the upcoming school year. In her role, my wife had to develop and present at several of these sessions.
But then COVID happened. And to make it worse, she had symptoms. And those symptoms themselves were getting worse.
By Monday, she was completely fatigued, and her voice was raspy. By Tuesday, she had a fever, and her senses of smell and taste were gone. Her symptoms lasted throughout the week. She was tired all the time. She was not really eating.
But there was one thing she kept doing. She kept working. The pandemic has taught everyone how work of all kinds can still be done remotely. Zoom. Teams. Technology allows us to be productive from anywhere.
It was an important week. Things needed doing. Every day, my wife would drag herself out of bed, put herself together, and hop on virtual meetings with co-workers and staff. I am sure everyone in those meetings could clearly tell that she was sick.
I understand why my wife was powering through. It wasn’t just about it being an important week. She takes pride in her work. She did a ton of work to be prepared for that week. And she sees the value in her work. She knows that her work ultimately impacts children. She powers through not for the benefit of her employer, but for the benefit of the children that are the true customers of the services that she provides.
I also understand why my wife’s employer would want her to power through. They are paying her to do a job. A job which they hired her to do because she is really good at what she does (and before someone sends me an email, I am not saying this just because she is my wife. She has objective statistical data to prove it). Plus, her unavailability would require redirecting other employees from their job duties, creating a cascade of potentially negative impacts on company productivity.
I understand why it was happening. Still, I didn’t like it (that I will admit was because I am her husband). But it also made me wonder. What is a sick day now? In days long past, a sick day meant that you were unavailable for work. But now, in the Zoom era, what does a “sick day” really mean?
We have been on this path for some time. When emails and cellphones became a part of our working lives, sick days surely meant less. But even then, I might argue that a “sick day” still meant something because your physical location still mattered. People still assumed that you would be less productive outside of the office. Working from home was not the same as working from the office. People expected less interaction with you when you were working from home.
But then a global pandemic forced everyone to learn how to how to do their jobs from home. Many employers (and employees) learned that productivity could remain stable, or even increase in some cases, with remote work. Certainly, this knowledge has changed the performance expectations now for people working from home. These higher expectations for remote work have also impacted the performance expectations for people taking a “sick day.”
Now, being “sick” means that you simply do what you were doing in 2020; you work from home. This version of “sick” includes a cold, a fever, a cough, or even COVID. Now, the only kind of “sick” that gets you out of work is the kind that is debilitating. It must render you essentially disabled to the point you cannot function. Severe pneumonia. Ebola. Monkeypox (maybe). Anything less may allow for questions about your commitment to your job, or to your coworkers, or to yourself.
I know I sound a bit sinister. You might think I am exaggerating. I am.
But just a little.
Whether to take a “sick day” has always been a troubling issue for employees. It should be an easy question. Sick people should stay home and rest. But we live in the real world, where many of us go to work sick. It is the American way.
Some of us do it because we have to. A 2020 Pew Research study found that 24% of U.S. civilian workers do not have paid sick leave. Anyone in that position would most likely choose taking care of their bills over taking care of their health.
But regardless of whether you have paid sick leave or not, many of us still work while we are sick. An October 2019 poll conducted by global HR firm Robert Half found that 57% of employees sometimes go to work while sick and 33% always go to work while they are sick. This means that 90% of employees go to work while they are sick.
My wife is in that 90%. I am in that 90%. I am sure many of you reading this column are too.
Is that a good thing? What have we gained from “powering through” our illnesses? Employee of the Month awards? Reputations as reliable and dependable workers? Promotions maybe?
I have never heard a dying person say, “I wish I took less sick days.” I have never even heard a retired person say that. In fact, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that.
This is not me being holier than thou.
Again, I am in that 90% that goes to work while sick. If I am really being honest, I am in that 33% that always goes to work while sick.
But watching my wife struggle to persevere made me think about whether what she was doing was worth it. And in turn, whether what I am doing is worth it. In 3 months, or 6 months, will anyone remember that she powered through? Will she even remember? Will I?
I don’t really think so.
Sickness comes and goes. It is a part of life. But perhaps there’s a lesson there for us. Perhaps, like sickness itself, we need to learn to come and go. Come in when we are healthy. Go away when we are sick.
If you do not have paid sick leave, I get it. The bills do not care if you get sick. Do what you must. But if you do have paid sick leave, make this agreement with me. We will use our sick time when we get sick.
Life is short. Health is wealth. And if our employers don’t understand that, then we probably should not be working there anyway.
Eric Foster, a community member of the editorial board, is a columnist for The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com. Foster is a lawyer in private practice. The views expressed are his own.
To reach Eric Foster: firstname.lastname@example.org
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