I'm getting sick of all this guilt

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The Independent Online
OVER the weekend I was ill. I collapsed in W H Smith on Saturday, feeling dizzy and nauseous, and retired to bed for the rest of the weekend - telling myself I would be perfectly all right by Monday. I wasn't, but I went in to work anyway - only to be ejected 10 minutes later by colleagues a great deal more sensible than myself.

On the way home, my taxi driver - a very nice man who thrust his can of Coke at me and ordered me to drink it - delivered a particularly informative monologue on the subject of guilt. In his experience, he told me, English people are far more susceptible to guilt than others. He had discovered, he explained, that on the Continent and in the United States nobody, but nobody, went in to work if they felt the slightest bit unwell. This, he felt, was an eminently sensible attitude to have.

This got me thinking. Regardless of whether his theory is true, if a taxi driver were to feel unwell it could be lethal if he decided to struggle on, regardless, behind the wheel. Indeed, he should feel guilty if he were to carry on regardless and thus put passengers' lives at risk; but I could hardly use this line of argument in my own case. I would scarcely be putting anyone's life at risk if I struggled in to work while feeling under the weather.

Still reflecting on this, I was deposited at my doctor's door. He pronounced that I did not have a bug but was exhausted and in need of a holiday. I burst into tears - furious to discover that I was taking the day off as a result of an ailment rarely encountered outside a Barbara Cartland novel.

My doctor, like the cab driver a very nice man, handed me a tissue - then, on second thoughts, the whole box - and explained how so few of the people he sees of my age group (25-30) feel able to say 'No'. This, he said, is primarily because of a paranoia that is totally illogical.

According to my doctor, the young people he sees agree to do far more than they can manage, socially and at work, out of a ludicrous fear that refusal is tantamount to an admission of inadequacy - an inadequacy that others will pounce on. People just do not think like that, he told me.

Hmm, I thought cynically . . . so the era of ruthless sharks depicted so graphically by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities is well and truly over? I decided to call my ultra-hyper very high- powered merchant banker friend in New York and check.

Astonishingly, she wasn't there. 'No,' explained the secretary, 'she isn't on holiday - she just felt like taking the day off.' In Wolfe's book, no one on the fast track would just take a day off like that. My doctor, and my cab driver, it seemed, had a point.

The trouble, I've decided, is confined to the generation which hit the job market at the height of the Nineties recession. Certainly my lot, who left university in 1991, are so ridiculously grateful to have jobs that we run the risk of not doing them properly. We burn ourselves out, not out of greed, like the Eighties kids, but out of paranoia that we may not be up to the mark.

Friends in solicitors' firms are so terrified of admitting defeat to their superiors that they stay up all night working and, of course, fall ill. (Two friends have had to take a year off on account of long- term stress-related illnesses such as glandular fever).

The bankers have become so worried about 'not doing well enough' that they are quite unable to relax. One, just back from a fortnight's holiday spent with a fellow banker, could speak of nothing but the fact that the office had called his colleague every day on his mobile phone. 'He looked so important, so wanted,' moaned my friend (adding uncharitably - 'I'm sure it was a set-up'). He's now so paranoid I doubt he'll take a holiday next year.

Even journalists - by nature, a more dissolute lot - are cutting back on their alcohol consumption for fear someone more sober might pinch their job. I heard of someone the other day who did not take a holiday for two-and-a-half years until he was so tired he got ME and was off for a year anyway.

The result of this ludicrous scenario is, as I discovered at the weekend, that we are unable to differentiate between maintaining a stiff upper lip when it really isn't necessary and showing real responsibility when it is.

Personally, I blame the grown- ups. As far as I can tell, the number of managers who actually say 'take a holiday' is negligible. But then most managers would find it hard to believe that their juniors were too frightened to ask for one.

Fortunately for me, my fiance has an understanding boss. My partner clearly looks so dreadful at the moment that he has been instructed to clear off at once - so he is happily going on holiday and taking me with him.

Now I am rather nervous about this - but not for the reasons stated above. On my first sojourn abroad, in Ireland, my nanny - a creature of not inconsiderable size - sat on my arm and broke it. Then the Irish doctors mended the wrong arm. And then last year I had a moped crash, breaking my wrist and nose, (people politely pretend that they can't see the dent now) necessitating a week in hospital on my return.

I like staying at work, you see, because, on the whole, it's safer.

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