David Cameron condemned the UK’s “sicknote culture” as a drain on resources, while 42 per cent of managers think having the flu isn't a valid excuse to skip work. This needs to changeby Arianne Shahvisi / March 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
In October last year, I swayed on my feet, sweating, before a packed room of academics and students. My lungs felt bruised and ticklish with each ragged breath, my limbs beamed with soreness. A few days into a bout of influenza, I was about to give an hour-long talk about my research. Coughing and spluttering in a poorly ventilated room, I somehow got through the presentation and the subsequent hour of questions, cried off the dinner invitation and went home to collapse into bed, where I’d remain for the rest of the week.
Why did I spend two hours in a crowded room with flu? Because I wanted to honour a prior commitment, and because I didn’t think the organisers would believe me.
We prioritise saving face over recovering
Feeling like my illness won’t be believed dates back to my early childhood. My sisters and I would assume each other’s illness was fake, part of a ploy to miss school or get some attention. How to prove otherwise? There were two acceptable forms of evidence. The gold standard was vomit. If you threw up, you were poorly, fair and square. Second was to refuse particular food. Turning down cheese on toast, crisps, or sweets was tantamount to having a doctor’s note. Once presented with this proof, we’d lovingly nurse each other, pressing cold flannels to febrile foreheads, bringing steaming mugs of lemon and honey, making elaborate get well cards. Without evidence, you were a liar who was to be shunned until you gave up the charade.
No surprise then that now I’m an adult who struggles to take sick leave. But I’m not alone: as a nation, we tend to prioritise saving face over taking time off. British people take just 4 sick days per year, compared to a European average of 10 days. This number has halved from 8 days since 1993, and is now as low as it has ever been.
There are lots of reasons why people work when they’re unwell: not having sick pay, being precarious, being overworked and perpetually behind. Social factors play a significant role: 86% of workers report a culture of “presenteeism”—one that valorises showing up above all else—within their workplace, and worry…