Today, I was supposed to be writing an entry about how I was visiting the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler school. Instead, I’m lying on the couch, in my jammies. This is America, so it can’t be my fault that I’m sick, just because I stayed up too late and ate poorly and didn’t get exercise. Instead, I blame my co-workers who came in sick and gave their dread diseases to me.
For the last two weeks my office has been filled with the coughs and sneezes of co-workers who have dragged their sorry butts in even though they felt awful. It’s like this in every office. This is a structural problem with companies in America; people — employers _and_ employees — insist on working through illness, no matter how serious. It sounds like a good idea, a good way to maximize productivity, but it isn’t.
In many cases, focusing on the productivity of the individual is a good thing. More ergonomic office equipment, better lighting, clear management communication — all of these things can improve overall productivity by improving individual productivity. Cutting down on absenteeism due to illness doesn’t work the same way; keeping a sick employee in improves one individual’s productivity while threatening those of the three or four other individuals who will catch whatever that first employee has. And who knows what vital tasks those other, now invalid, employees were carrying out?
Sometimes, that’s a trade worth making. When the sick employee has a big deadline, a vital meeting, then it could be worth risking a few other workers’ sicknesses. But most everyday work is more mundane. Traditional sick days and vacation banks don’t take this into account. They make all sick days equal, and encourage employees never to take a day off — with all the negative results mentioned above.
Most white-collar workers are given substantial responsibility in their jobs (in fact, many employers classify their white-collar employees as exempt based purely on the extent of the employees’ responsibilities). Why mother these key employees by counting how many days they take off sick? Other methods of performance assessment will tell you if these employees are doing their jobs. Let employees take time off when they need it, without penalty. So that I don’t have to be sick and miserable again.