Feeling ill? tough - go to work

You're too poorly to move, but try telling your boss. In the heartless Nineties, sick leave is for wimps, says Jane Fitzgerald
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Symptoms: temperature, 104; nasal flow, Niagara falls; skin, pale blue; eyes, red (plus gunge) and ... brain, brain ... brain, oh yes, brain shut down apart from occasional lucid depressive spells. Diagnosis? Sick. Sick to the eyeballs. Action? Why, go to work as normal, of course.

With the rise of short contracts, staff cuts and part-time working, suddenly working through illness is fun again. Chicken pox? Glorified acne. Migraine? Have a paracetemol. ME? Give me a break, we call that feeling tired, loser. Changing work practices mean that a lot of people are afraid that if they take Friday off, come Monday morning there will be another sucker in their desk, some disastrous decision will have been made in their absence or, at the very least, they will have etched indelible resentment in their overworked colleagues' hearts.

"In a time of job insecurity," says Dr Simon Biggs, senior lecturer in the department of Applied Social Studies at Keele University, "illness is seen as weakness, an acknowledgement of an inability to cope. Because when people are under a lot of stress they revert to more primitive psychological mechanisms and an absent person becomes the focus of blame." So when the going gets tough, we lose our abstract ability to empathise and instead think, "Lazy bastard, I had that cold and I didn't get a day off".

"Presenteeism is the real problem these days, not absenteeism," agrees Stefan Stern, spokesman for the Industrial Society. "When people are ill and come into work because they're afraid not to, but are so ineffectual that they might as well have stayed at home, all they do is infect everybody else."

Of course this struggle-on-regardless culture isn't true across the board. Attitudes are becoming more polarised. The good are getting better and the bad are getting positvely tortuous. Some companies really are taking up the new, cuddly "our people are our biggest asset" management theories. "Even some big, hairy companies like Shell are adopting good sick leave and family policies, realising that understanding and humanity breeds loyalty and more productive employees," says Stern. But other organisations take the "flexible"approach. That means that you, the worker, should be flexible from seven in the morning until 10 o'clock at night and your employer has the flexibility to remove your rights at any time.

"I tried to have a day off sick," says Emma Salter, 27, a designer, who has only had one day off in her four years with her current company. "I'd had a minor operation on my foot and was planning a day to recover. My boss rang and said I had to come in.

I tried to explain that I couldn't walk, but she screamed 'You don't need to walk, you can sit down, just get here'. So I got a cab in at my own expense. As a result, my foot got infected and I was unable to walk for a month. I didn't have any more time off, though; I worked through the agony. My boss never once thought to ask how I was, she just got irritated that I was making the office look tatty (because all I could wear on my feet were huge trainers and I had to keep my bad foot on the desk to stop it bleeding). When I finally got better, I went into a severe depression and have been looking for a new job ever since."

Pat Flanders, 41, a middle manager in a manufacturing firm, knows that she has pressurised employees into working through illness. "Cuts have created a situation where there is no slack anymore. If anyone is off sick, we all have to stay later. No wonder people get resentful. I'd love to be more sympathetic, but my hands are tied. I tend to shout a lot and make things very unpleasant when people start sniffing. It is truly ridiculous looked at in the cold light of day, I agree." This attitude, however, generally has little effect on the number of days lost to sickness. If anything, people who feel they can't take time off are liable to get even more ill and eventually have more forced absence - through stress. The Industrial Society estimates that pounds 11bn is lost to absenteeism annually. CBI figures say that in 1994 there were 175 million days lost to sickness, very little decline from previous years.

Mark Hastings, policy adviser at the Institute of Management, says that sick leave is better dealt with at a lower level. If the responsibility is on the team, people are less happy to cheat the system. "It is like the difference between stealing from a local corner shop and doing an insurance fraud. It doesn't seem wrong if you are cheating a big, faceless organisation."

Our grin-and-bear-it culture is not perpetuated merely by evil employers. Often, we simply believe we are indispensable, says occupational psychologist Neil Crawford from the Tavistock Clinic. "You won't always be thanked for staying. In fact many people appreciate that someone can make a sensible decision. If you always go in at death's door it may be because you can't let go of work."

Ten years ago, thriving on stress and laughing in the face of illness was part of the macho work culture. Now, rather pitifully, it's a symptom of our insecurity and paranoia. Doesn't it make you sick?


Resentful that you're never allowed to be off when you're really ill? Take guilt-free revenge with our guide to the perfect sickie.

1 Never take a day off when you are actually ill. "That way if you are off then people think it might be really serious - because they know you normally struggle in," says Tatiana Fifer, 28, an underwiter. Doesn't this mean putting others at risks of infection? "Absolutely," says Tatiana, "you want to infect your colleagues because, first you can enjoy their suffering and second it reflects well on you."

2 Ring up immediately on waking up, before any fluid intake - for extra croakiness. If necessary, smoke 10 filterless cigarettes.

3 Say something that your employer can relate to. "My headmistress is a spinster," says London drama teacher, Katharine Boot, 35, "so I can never have genuinely sick children. But a fake chronically sick ageing father is something she can really identify with."

4 Have something with no visible symptoms or the acting skills required the next day can be a burden. "Earache is my favourite," says Adam Taylor, 31, a salesman. "It's particularly good in that it is something one can become prone to." Diarrhoea is good because it's non-specific and no one wants to hear the details.

6. If you are going to lie, avoid the media. "One teacher rang in sick once," says, Katharine Boot, "it was June and the supply teacher let the children watch Wimbledon. Unfortunately the camera caught their 'sick' teacher enjoying the tennis."