An article in The Age yesterday got me thinking about the decline of the Great Australian Sickie.
The article pondered that whilst a tiny portion of employees take sick leave for “mental health days” or “doona days” or head to the beach on a sunny February afternoon, the vast majority of employees soldier on whilst sick, either as a function of their own strong work ethic (screaming “Martyr me!”) or from pressure from their managers. This fronting up to work when you are unwell (and probably less productive) is known as Presenteeism.
There are a few reasons for this. Labour dynamics have changed over the past 10 years or so – workers are more likely to be employed as casuals or under contracts without sick leave entitlements, so if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. The overarching climate of retrenchments in many big firms (who shall *cough* remain unnamed) means the pressure to show up to work hacking up pneumonic lung excretions is heavier now with the guillotine of redundancy poised over employees’ heads. Under this retrenchment/outsourcing/offshoring regime, teams are becoming leaner, so there are fewer team members to take up the slack if an employee calls in sick. Increase in flexible working options also means that employees who are too sick to work, still do so from their home desk, cushioned by blankets, tissues and Codrals. A poor man’s sick leave.
It’s not always from organisational pressures. It is often self-imposed.
I’ve been having a bad run with the Health Fairy lately (trust me, they’re not all gossamer wings and stardust) – appendicitis, appendectomy, gastroenteritis, bronchitis and laryngitis (just call me the Empress of Itis) all in the past 3 weeks. I was clearly not well enough to work whilst I was in hospital, but when I got home, I damn well worked. My body was sore, laboured and recovering, but my brain was active and I felt I could be productive for my team. My managers never put an ounce of pressure on me to come back to work, quite the opposite in fact. I was to let my body heal and was to take my time.
But did I feel compelled to work? Yes. I did. I didn’t want to let my team down. I had only been working there a little over a month on a fixed term basis and didn’t want to be seen to be taking advantage of sick leave. All this while I should have clearly stayed at home nursing my various Itises. I’d never really considered myself a martyr, but I did start to see the beginnings of stigmata on my soul. It was professional pride too, the “I’m only here for a short time, I want to make it count“. And we all know what happened to Pride in Se7en.
I appreciate that not everyone has the same work ethic (in fact, I’m not nearly as determined to work as some, who may be classified workaholics), nor does everyone have a flexible or empathetic workplace or manager to mitigate the overwhelming need to be present in the office when they should clearly be at home. I harbour conflicting guilt that I came into the office last week whilst barfing up a lung to potentially infect my colleagues, but I also felt guilt about working from home. A vicious Catch 22 and one that was purely self-inflicted.
The Cult of Presenteeism is alive and well in the Australian workforce. We are probably not as intensely into it as the Japanese who, from my own observations, have an indoctrinated “work at all costs” and “don’t leave the office until your boss does” approach to their jobs. But then, their culture is one of a face mask mandate for all during Winter, whether you are sick or well. I wore one during Winter in Tokyo (don’t judge) and felt horribly conspicuous – I never did get over that feeling even though literally everyone else wore one. I do wonder whether the face mask routine is a function of the Japanese work ethic – “If I wear a face mask when sick then I won’t infect anyone, so it’s OK that I go to work”.*
I’m a big believer in balancing organisational and employee needs in the modern workplace, but the fact is that it is an employer’s market at the moment. To a degree, business can impose it’s own pressures (within the law) knowing that employees don’t have a lot of options if they choose to leave.
There are many reasons for Presenteeism, but I think in our current economic climate it is on the increase. It’s both an organisational and an individual problem, although I would say an undercurrent of historical organisational pressure accounts for a fair portion of the individual problem itself. The Great Australian Sickie will never really die, I just think it will dilute over time.
Or we will wear more face masks.
* I have absolutely no evidence of this, it is just a personal observation.