*This content was written last year while I was fighting a bug. Since it’s flu season, I thought now would be a good time to post.
The topic of getting sick and work never crossed my mind to discuss in writing, but a recent bout with the flu (from which I am still recovering as I write) left me with a little more time on my hands for reflection. If you care about your work at all, you likely experience feelings of guilt when you find yourself making the decision to take time off due to sickness. You don’t want to fall behind. You don’t want to burden your coworkers. You don’t want to disappoint people. A strong sense of accountability for your domain at work is healthy. However, sometimes your body just needs a timeout.
While I was sick, it made me think back on previous work environments. In many previous jobs with varying levels of responsibility and seniority, I was encouraged to work while sick, and taking time off to recover was a bit of an unspoken taboo. A lot of companies subtly or not so subtly encourage people to “suck it up” and “power through” when they are ill. This is seen as a badge of honor and validation that you’re a real go-getter, and you don’t let life get in your way. However, being encouraged to work in a suboptimal state is encouraging suboptimal work and therefore encouraging suboptimal performance in general. According to this Harvard Business Review on article on Presenteeism, “Researchers say that presenteeism—the problem of workers’ being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning—can cut individual productivity by one-third or more.”
Reflecting on this sort of work culture made me think about the impact it had on my overall performance in those jobs. In short, this expectation hurt my performance. I don’t know that I realized it at the time, because the expectation seemed so ubiquitous with business, but below the surface I very much resented companies leveraging my work ethic against my own well-being. Paid Time Off is part of the actual work contract and social contract between employer and employee, but this unspoken expectation of “sucking it up” somewhat removes my option to collect on that contract under reasonable circumstances. This loosens the bond of the relationship and chips away at the drivers of loyalty and purpose. What loyalty do I owe a company that cares little for my health? What purpose can I find in work that is not appreciated but rather expected in a disconnected fashion? The above breakdowns in the bonds of this employer-employee relationship then further fall apart in terms of motivation. With the elements of a healthy relationship compromised, I am left with fluctuating motivation. My motivation is mainly a result of my own work ethic but is not tied to any real sense of obligation to the organization. Lastly, when I am both on the clock and ill, my work is not my best. It sets the precedent that work is about work, not necessarily good work. I find this to be a pretty unattractive trait in an organization.
Fortunately for me, XL Group has a healthier take on this and the impact on my performance is measurable. At XL Group I’ve literally been told to go home when I’ve tried to battle through a bug. Nobody wants my germs and nobody wants me working when my work is going to be suboptimal. More importantly, people at all levels in the organization just want me to be healthy. While the guilt of taking time off, falling behind, burdening coworkers, and disappointing people is all there, it is trumped by the guilt of not doing what I can to recover quickly so I can get back to doing good work. XL Group’s commitment to the actual employment contract and the social contract with me as an employee is steadfast, and so my sense of loyalty and purpose are not only intact but reinforced. It is easy to recommit every day to people who genuinely care about your well-being. It is easy to feel purpose in your work when there is a community bond across the team members all working towards the same goals. When the flu let me out of its grip, motivation returned to status quo, and I snapped back into the flow of my workday and resumed work at a level of focus that is reasonably expected from a healthy, optimal employee. The space afforded to me to fully recover is of course good for my health, but it is a cultural attribute of an organization that does not confuse working with effective work.
Companies with the antiquated practices of working while sick, all-nighters, and other such quality of life compromises should expect the loyalty of their employees to be, at best, shaky. The guilt of taking off of work is ever-present when you care about your obligations. However, speaking from experience, the guilt of leaving a company that values the “suck it up” mentality does not exist.