Wednesday, June 20, 2007

You Sneeze, You Lose

Twenty some-odd years ago, I can remember clearly being way too sick to work. Unfortunately, I was waiting tables at the time, so not going to work meant not getting paid and I definitely did want to get paid. Worse, if I really was so sick that it was worth being even more broke than I was, it was up to me to find someone to cover my shift. My feeling at the time was that if I was well enough to be dialing for coverage, I was well enough to get my behind into work, sniffly nose and all.

This is not to say I was heedless of public health. Back when "cover your cough" still meant nothing more than using one's bare hands, I raced to the back sidestation every time I felt a cough or a sneeze coming on and aimed under my arm for the garbage can, dishes held high - especially if they were full of food I was on my way to deliver to patrons. In fact, it was more because of how pressured I felt to wantonly endanger the health of others that I felt so much anger toward a system that did them and me such disservice. It would have been nice to not worry about the money so much too.

You'd think that in the corporate world where we have paid sick leave available to us that the situation would be better, but it's not. Within weeks of starting a new job as a senior manager, I can remember coming down with a nasty respiratory flu. In a world where my boss was sending out messages at 2am, I wanted to prove I was serious about my work and so I showed up even though resting horizontally sounded much more appealing. The truth is, that even when they tell you to stay home, the realistic workplace expectations of today are that you'll be there anyway.

During one meeting, I started feeling worse and worse and without realizing it, began to slump down in my chair just so I could rest my head on the back. I was completely mortified when my boss noticed and told me I should go home - whether he meant it this way or not, my sense was that I had been caught slacking.

This isn't just me with a higher-than-normal sense of responsibility either. Another more recent flu that knocked me flat on my butt and kept me on the couch for nearly a week this spring, hit the spousal unit a few weeks later. He wasn't so inclined to rest up and get well though - he had a major project happening at work with a deadline that was out of his control and no one there to pick up the slack. So he dragged his sorry butt to work day in, day out for the entire week he was sick. I hope he remembered to sneeze into his armpit or the trashcan.

Variations on this theme are endless. More companies than I can count send out notices in advance of bad weather reminding employees of their inclement weather policy - often stating that all employees are "essential" and so while they won't go so far as to tell you what you should do if getting to work is truly dangerous, they do expect everyone to be there, (quite literally at times) come hell or high water. If you simply can't make it to work, they'll be happy to dock you a vacation day.

In all of these situations - because we want to get paid, our employers consider our presence to be vital (and they're tired of dealing with people who are slackers, wimps or simply have poor judgment), our sense of duty and responsibility in showing up and contributing our share is strong - especially when there are deadlines looming - all of this is understandable and even laudable much of the time. However, usually when we do this, we're also missing critical information that shows this can be truly stupid thinking and really, it has got to stop. Really... before it gets people killed.

Anyone pushing themselves to get work done because of a deadline has forgotten the dual lessons that a) no one is indispensable and b) a few hours sleep almost always means we'll get more work done at higher quality than we will in the "all-nighter" world of diminishing returns.

Managers who work late at night or work when they are sick are only role modeling poor behavior for the workplace and setting the bar inappropriately high for their employees in the process. We'd all be better off if managers worked harder at having a balanced life themselves and expecting and helping their employees to do the same. If we can get that far, we'll probably at least see a reduction in the number of heart attacks in overstressed workers just living for their jobs.

Don't believe this is a better option than working at all costs? Check out this Cornell study that exposes the previously hidden costs of "presenteeism". I bet most managers and business owners don't take these costs into account when they're writing their absenteeism policies.

We also have to take responsibility for ourselves, no matter what our employers are saying. When we push to get ourselves on the road when we shouldn't be, we're letting outside factors that have little to do with reason cloud our own judgment - the only judgment that really matters when it comes right down to it. I remember making a flight one pre-dawn morning that I should never have made. Although I was fully capable of flying in the clouds that were scattered around that morning, the plane I was flying was not certified for instrument flight rules and it was too dark to see where the clouds were to avoid them.

The trouble was, I was scheduled to take some doctors east of the mountains for the day and while my boss at the time told me to call if I couldn't make the flight, the unspoken understanding was that I was not to call. Just like in many bush flying operations, I'm sure he'd tell you differently, but they have ways of making these things clear while keeping themselves out of trouble.

There were definitely some scary moments for me that morning, trying to figure out where the clouds were and how to keep out of them.

If I'd had an accident or if I'd been found to have busted any regulations, I'd have been the only one blamed. My prediction though is that only when we recognize the culpability of the employers in pressuring employees to do things that they shouldn't be doing, will we begin to see meaningful change in that regard. Workplace policies that make it financially difficult to stay at home, or create other pressure to be at work when there is good reason not to be, effectively force people to act against their own best interests and quite often the best interests of others too.

Alone, these ought to be compelling arguments. Stop for a moment, though, and think about one more element to this issue that is looming on the horizon.

How are our present practices setting ourselves up for failure in the event of some kind of flu pandemic? Whether it's a return of some extra nasty fatal version of the flu or whether bird flu mutates to a form that humans can pass to one another, the possibility is out there. And if that comes to pass, as it's been predicted by health officials, that would not be the best time to expect we'll all be at work even if we're sick.

In fact, now would be a really good time to prepare for a pandemic by practicing getting work done even when some people are unwell and better off at home. After all, if you can't do without a handful of people now, what makes you think you'll be able to do without an officeful when things get really difficult?

And why not practice that when earthquakes and windstorms and blizzards and hurricanes hit too? It's called business continuity and because of all the ways that businesses can be impacted, it makes sense that we should reevaluate our workforce policies and the ways in which we might be able to use newer technologies to our advantage in the face of various situations that could arise.

Perhaps as we think more comprehensively about these issues, we can get to the point where going home sick doesn't have to mean a loss of face or, worse, a loss of a paycheck. Perhaps then we can also enjoy a nice dinner out without having to wonder if the server sneezed on our food.

Send your thoughts about workforce policies to me at and let's explore how changes to those policies might improve the results we see.

What are the possible unintended consequences of today's decisions?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.