Here’s Hoping Our Fucked Culture Of Guilting People Into Working While Sick Ends Post-COVID

A while back, way before coronavirus sent us all into work from home lockdown, I wrote about how people who are sick and come into work aren’t top employees, they’re dicks. Taking sick leave is something I feel strongly about – now more than ever.

But once the article went live, I had plenty of people – predominantly casual employees and those in hospitality – point out that while sick leave is easy to take in some work environments, for others it’s not so simple.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we look at hygiene. We wash our hands for twenty seconds now. We cough into our elbow. We use hand sanitiser when we enter and leave public spaces like supermarkets.

So I’m really hoping this change in attitude extends to managers in workplaces where someone calling in sick is treated with guilt, shame and the pressure to show up anyway.

These managers exist everywhere. Office spaces. Retail. Hospo. Childcare. Public service. You name the workplace, you can find a manager in the wider management team who doesn’t respond to a sick leave request with “rest up, we’ll manage!”, but with a passive-aggressive “ok”. Or worse.

One time when I was working at a fashion store, I came down with the flu. I called my manager that morning and told them I had woken up sick. My shift was at 9am, this was 7.30am. They said if I could find a cover, then I could stay home – otherwise, I had to open the store.

No one was answering their phone – this was a staff of under 25 year olds, everyone was hungdog and sleeping it off. Terrified to just not show up to work, and given my manager explicitly said I could only stay home if I found a cover for myself, I just rocked up sick.

I was so unwell I felt faint. I piled some cardboard boxes filled with stock up behind the counter, so I could sit but still man the register. I was sniffling. Coughing. I had a fever. It was a full-blown flu, and I was in the most contagious stage of it. But there I was, handling money and touching people’s purchases all morning.

Unbeknownst to me, the regional manager was doing a secret walk-by check on the store. He saw me sitting on boxes, called my manager, and I was reprimanded the following week. For sitting down! When I was working sick!

That was years ago. But the same shit happens to people every day in Australia, because we have been living in a gross culture where taking leave when you need it and putting your work burden on others is treated as a punishable offence, even if that punishment is just the knowledge your boss is disappointed or irritated by you.

Obviously, there are complications for a business when someone calls in sick. Work needs to be picked up. In hospo and retail, often you’re the only person doing that job for that specific shift – if I stayed home that Sunday, the store wouldn’t have opened until 12pm when the next worker showed up. In a kitchen, you might have no chef for the morning shift.

But that burden shouldn’t fall on the sick individual, especially now we’ve seen exactly how horrific the fallout can be.

The flu kills people just like coronavirus does – although coronavirus has a higher fatality rate, people die of the flu every year. Who knows how many people I infected with the flu in that shift. But imagine if I had coronavirus? Imagine if a chef showed up to work with a fever and a sore throat, worked in the kitchen for a full shift, and at one point unintentionally wiped their brow and infected a whole batch of food?

Imagine a manager pressuring a barista to show up when sick, who then serves hundreds of coffees, leading to a cluster of new cases?

Now more than ever, it is imperative that managers give staff the freedom to take sick leave when they need it. But our history of behaviour says this simply won’t be the case unless businesses restructure and have the manpower in place for people covering a shift to call in sick.

Having more than one person rostered, or having people on call is going to have to be the way forward. We can’t continue with the old norms – we can’t bully people into rocking up to work sick anymore. Because we’re actually aware now of just how detrimental that can be for a swathe of people they come into contact with.

Last week, new legislation ruled that ongoing casual workers should be entitled to the same benefits as part-time and full-time workers. That means sick leave. But it’s still not an across-the-board legislation. If you’re just doing a few shifts a week, you likely won’t be covered, for example.

The deeper issue here isn’t sick leave (although that is still needed for all of the Australian workforce, in my opinion), it’s the culture.

Here’s hoping one shining light amidst this pandemic darkness is that the culture changes for the better.