I’m getting a flu shot this year, because the flu season is said to be very bad this time around. I’m getting it a week later than I had planned, because the moron at the Wegmans pharmacy who told me I could just walk in and get one any afternoon did not mention that the afternoon in question had to be a Wednesday and it had to be from noon to 5:00. What I’ve been hearing though is that this year we have two flus, the dreaded H1N1 swine flu and the highly virulent H3N2. I’ve already dodged a bullet once; my immediate family all got sick around Christmas, but my wife and I were spared. Since I like to go into things with my eyes open, I read up on some facts and myths about this year’s flu season in a WaPo article. Interesting reading, to be sure, but one bit at the end annoyed me: They made a point to mention how important it is to stay home if you’re sick.
As stupid advice goes, this ranks up with some of the worst, and it’s amazing I see it repeated so often because it’s so obviously wrong. I don’t mean to say that you should go to work if you’re sick, because exposing other people is a bad idea unless those people happen to be spammers or politicians. But the advice is so off-point there’s no way to avoid sounding like an idiot when you give it.
First, not many people actually choose to go into work if they’re feeling lousy. There are a few idiots who will try to tough out literally everything and by doing so manage to increase the rate of infection for everybody else, but most of us have common sense. While this advice is aimed at that 2% of people, they’re the least likely to listen to it. For the rest of us, that leads into the second problem.
Just about any job has a limited number of sick days, and many have draconian policies that try to deal with serial abusers but end up hurting the rest of us. Case in point: I once got a very severe cold on December 30th and had to take the day off early, and stay out sick for a few days into the new year. The company had only recently instituted a policy where you accrued an extra deviance—or whatever it as they called it—from the norm whenever you took sick time around a holiday. You only got so many deviances before things stepped up a notch, and they came off your record fairly slowly. I couldn’t help it; I worked in a call center and I had one of the worst sore throats I ever had in my life. My uvula was so badly swollen I was choking on it for about a week. It cost three deviances, because getting un-sick took longer than I wanted; they only gave you a limited number of days per deviance. And this is still better than the terms I worked with under Borders, where if you wanted several sick days to count as one for this purpose you needed a doctor’s note.
A cold is difficult to function through, yet most of us do it anyway because we expect we’re going to get several of them in a year and we want to hold sick time in reserve for something worse. We also know a cold is likely to last awhile, so we go to work when we think there’s a chance it can still get worse, or if we think it’s getting better, because we have to; and for some people, they get little or no sick time at all. My dad used to work at a job where despite being an all-union shop, the contract said they got three days of sick time a year, and that was it. Missing work might not mean imminent job loss but it did mean losing pay, and that’s hard when you’re the sole breadwinner for a family of four. He didn’t have the luxury of staying home with a mere cold.
As bad as a cold is, though, a flu is darn near impossible to function through. I’ve had a couple of flus that started out with 24- to 48-hour headaches so severe that I completely shut down. These are the days you take off, if you can. And a flu also lasts a very long time. The core “Ugh, I wish I was dead” period of a flu can last around two weeks, and can leave you coughing for another month or more. After I caught a very nasty flu that raced around my extended family in late ’95, I was also ten times more susceptible to respiratory complications from any cold I got after that. Flus are nasty.
So this is why the advice is stupid: There is no way a person with a flu can know early on that they’re coming down with it, and once they do, they can probably only afford to take a few days off if that. Most jobs, if you want two weeks off it’s called a vacation and you plan for it way in advance. Couple all that with the fact that the employment market has been turning against workers for over a decade, and vacation plans and sick time are drastically worse than anyone had a right to expect 20 years ago, let alone 30 or 40. And heck, let’s not forget stay-at-home and work-at-home parents who are there to care for their kids; they don’t get a day off at all.
Everyone who’s ever had a bad cold or flu has thought at some point, “Screw you, stupid talking head, I have to go to work.” And yes, we’ve pretty much all had to look at a coworker who came in on death’s door and probably spread the disease to us who should have taken that advice. But we know that coworker is either too stupid to have listened and it’s wasted on them anyway, or they came in because they blew their sick days on frivolous crap when they weren’t really sick. Either way, these are the people who will never learn; it’s a waste of time trying to drill common sense into them.
This same advice isn’t quite as unsound when talking about keeping kids home from school, yet for a lot of parents these days it’s a major difficulty because both parents work. But if you’re a stay-at-home parent and your kids are that sick, by all means keep them home.
They should amend this advice to say don’t go to the doctor unless you absolutely have to. But again, sometimes people have to because of a workplace policy requiring a note. Still, probably way more than half of all doctor visits for a cold or flu are completely avoidable, and there are stupid parents who bring their kids in at the drop of a hat. We all hate these people, but they’re not gonna take good advice either. Public shaming might be effective on them, since these are probably also the sort of parents who are a little too involved in everything and bow readily to peer pressure. If you’re in a PTA group with people like this, under no circumstances should you allow them to ever live it down.
We return to the subject of the workplace for this final thought. My wife got this same sage advice to stay home when sick when she was recovering from cancer years ago before we met. She explained repeatedly to the ditzy HR person who told her this that she was in fact out of sick time. Eventually the HR person called her back in and said she’d reviewed the files only to discover that there was no sick time left to take. Brilliant deduction, Sherlock! She looked right in my wife’s eyes and, nodding her head stupidly, said with great sincerity and no irony whatsoever: “Try not to get sick.”
That punchline is a running joke in our house.