Sunday, March 9, 2008

Does work make you sick?

wider angle

Besides colds, coughs and fevers, another queasy state is making the rounds this week: the dilemma of whether or not to call in sick.
It’s a tricky thing, this sick leave concept. It ranks up there with the un-wired holiday: no laptop, no mobile, no BlackBerry.
Yeah, right. Who’s taken one of those lately?
So on the one hand, there’s your health. Your resistance has been shot by too many meals out, too much travel, long hours at the office, little sleep and lots of exposure to unsavoury elements that breed infection. (As you read this, New Delhi’s mercury has been inching ever closer to zero.)
And then…there’s your job. In this Indian economy marked by harried, hurried, haphazard growth, your presence will not only be missed, but the absence dissected and scrutinized. You are necessary and instrumental to the organization’s growth. Your scheduled presentation is key to the company’s survival. Your employer, if successful, could emerge an industry leader and mark India’s entry to the big leagues.
Suddenly, your pesky cough stands in the way of the nation’s emergence as a global superpower.
Even workers who claim to toil for the most lenient and family-friendly of employers say they feel sheepish calling in sick because their supervisors make them feel bad about it: “Sometimes they do go overboard in criticizing you, even if you’re genuinely unwell, because they are understaffed,” said one lawyer in Mumbai who requested anonymity in exchange for honesty. “Fair enough, but there are many days where you sit around doing nothing waiting for the clock to strike 7.”
But who, I wonder, is sitting around doing nothing these days? If that’s the case, perhaps the persistent requests for sick days from the same employees over and over are a sign of something else. Just what is it about their occasional sniffle that makes them call in sick? This is supposed to be the most exciting economy on the planet—aren’t workers so eager to wake up every morning and help build a new India?
Human resources consultant Jyotika Dhawan says organizations noting a lot of sick time being exhausted need to take a close look at why: “Many employees ‘take a sickie’ because their morale is low and they just don’t like or can’t do their work,” said the director of Helix-HR in New Delhi. “When a productive employee starts turning in mediocre work…lateness, leaving on the dot, leaving work early, prolonged breaks and increasing absences are the most common actions of burned-out employees.”
In this case, the younger age and relative immaturity of the Indian workforce can be a contributing factor to the lack of motivation. After all, managers here might not have yet mastered the art of inspiring people to come to work day in and day out…
“Indians,” one American chief executive of a software company pronounced to me recently, “get more tummy aches than any other nation. Why do they call out sick so much?”
There’re legitimate reasons, of course. Poor hygiene conditions and unsafe water come to mind. (Note to office managers: If you want to keep your staff healthy, maybe it’s time to revisit the stream of brown stuff coming out of the water cooler.)
Some managers I spoke with cite employees who call in sick, but try to win brownie points by checking the occasional email. Employees, of course, have their right to sick leave, but their half-hearted attempts to work might result in more harm than good; the same can be said for those heroes who try to come in and sniffle their way through client meetings—and infect the rest of us, perpetuating the cycle.
Taking a sick day also helps deepen the divide between those ever-warring factions at work: the haves and have-nots. Not in terms of money, but kids and spouses, of course.
“Sick leave is actually supposed to be taken for being ill themselves,” observed Vipul Bondal, who works in public relations. “Relatives/spouse/kids being unwell does not count as a reason.”
Counterpoint: “Most people do call in to say that they themselves are ‘sick’ because it is deemed unmanly (and hence, unprofessional) to stay away from work to look after your sick child/spouse,” says Suchismita Bhaumik, a working mother in Mumbai.
Honesty, they say, is the best policy—but seems rarely followed when it comes to illness; how else to explain the sudden spurt in time off requested towards the end of the year at companies where such leave doesn’t roll over.
One exception came in this gem forwarded to me: an employee’s text message to his team leader. “I’m not coming in to office today because I’m not well. Please don’t call me as I will be attending my sister-in-law’s wedding.”
Now that kind of honesty, I am sure, made his manager sick.

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