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Don't push yourself
Can't we all agree that working while sick is bad?
This week's issue has been a day late, with good reason: influenza is circulating my house. My oldest son was hit pretty hard. My youngest had a milder version. Finally sent the youngest back to school today and now my middle child is home sick.
I was trying to write something yesterday and just… couldn't. I'm exhausted. I've had client work due every day, plus I'm doing NaNoWriMo. If you're not familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the goal is to write 50k words in the month of November. I'm not doing that, but I set a goal for myself to write one article per day, on top of everything else I already write. And I've had some major momentum: I'm 10 for 10 days in November.
But, between the client writing, my NaNo writing, sick people, and not feeling great myself, my brain broke. So I decided that the world would not end if my Substack went out a day late.
Instead of my original topic (we'll save that one for a day when I can more coherently form an argument), I want to talk about this idea of "working while sick." Because I thought the pandemic had gotten us to move past the idea of pushing through but… maybe not.
What we teach our kids
On Sunday evening, I got an email from the elementary school principal. It noted that the school's rate of chronic absenteeism has gone up. She wrote:
Let me be clear, if children are ill, we want them to stay home. This includes illnesses such as fever, respiratory illnesses, strep, flu, etc. A slight cold, light cough, or being tired should not require a child to stay home.
Perhaps she was trying to reframe expectations around illness. During the pandemic years (once the kids were back in the school building), they were sent home for any signs of illness. They spent the cold and flu season wearing masks at school. The result? Almost no illness.
Since that time, whenever we've been sick, we've been really sick. My theory is that our bodies are getting used to the idea of being sick again. And I've fallen into the camp that if my kids are a "little sick" I keep them home (what the principal implied is no longer ok).
But I take issue with the idea that my kids should be in school at all when they're not feeling well. They might be really tired or have a headache, even absent the more serious symptoms like a fever. What's the point of going to school? Just so the school can mark them "present"? It's not like they're going to learn and they'll potentially spread germs to others.
We spent years thinking beyond ourselves: let's try not to get other people sick. Why hasn't that continued?
Because society values productivity above everything else.
Because showing up is a signal of commitment.
I'm sure the principal didn't send this email in a vacuum. I've always known her to be incredibly empathetic. I'm sure an administrator somewhere in the district looked at the absence rates and decided it was a problem.
I won't be sending my kids to school if they're not feeling well. My younger child has only had mild symptoms, but if I'd sent her to school, she would have spread influenza.
A better lesson to teach is that while responsibilities (like school) are important, we also have to take care of ourselves, physically and mentally.
Presenteeism is a terrible thing
What I don't like about pressure from the school is that it normalizes pushing through illness in the name of Productivity from a young age.
A recent Wall Street Journal article found companies bemoaning the fact that employees are taking their allowed sick days (gasp). As a result, companies are losing money. It starts:
The bar for taking a sick day is getting lower, and some bosses say that's a problem.
U.S. workers have long viewed an unwillingness to take sick days as a badge of honor. That's a laurel workers care much less about these days. The number of sick days Americans take annually has soared since the pandemic, employee payroll data show.
The article goes on to quote a boss who notes that younger workers, in particular, are taking all their sick days. "I don't think there's the same work ethic," she says. Is that the same work ethic where employees are expected to be loyal but employers don't have to be loyal in return? Le sigh.
A physical presence is inherently problematic and ableist. That's why remote work has worked for so many people, and why return-to-office mandates are alarming. A friend of mine suffers from chronic illness and remote work has made his life so much easier. Now his company has ordered employees back into the office, at least a few days per week. He doesn't know what to do and wonders if he'll need to find a new job.
I interviewed Nola Simon previously. She was in a massive car accident when she tried to drive to work when she had pneumonia. Her lung collapsed.
And now bosses are mad that employees are taking the sick days they're entitled to, as part of a benefits package? That's capitalism at its finest. Push through the illness. Work until you die.
Running a one-person business
I've been running ragged all week, between administering Tamiflu, pouring glasses of orange juice, and making toast for sick kids lying in bed.
The days I've feared since I started freelancing full-time a year ago might have arrived. I wondered what would happen if I got so sick that I couldn't work.
I'm sure my clients would be sympathetic if I asked for deadline extensions. I hope so. But it's also about catch-up time.
The only one who can deliver the work is me. I don't have colleagues who can cover for me. If I ask for an extension, that might be fine... but the work still has to get done.
And now, on a Friday afternoon, I feel a little... off. Hoping I'm simply fatigued and not getting sick. Thinking about my kids lying in bed and desperately needing a nap myself.
For me, this is probably the hardest part of freelancing: not necessarily getting a break when I need it.
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