Editorial: Attitudes about illness in the workplaces can be sick

There was one night I remember working in 2019. The restaurant had about 30 reservations, but we tended to refer to it as “150 covers,” or 150 people coming in to eat. It was a busy night. At 4 p.m., the prep work began immediately: bacon bubbling in the oven, onions already starting to sweat in the pan. But outside the kitchen, I noticed my coworker resembled those onions a little too well. His head perspired, sweat running down his cheeks—and once it reached his nose, there was no way to tell where the sweat and snot ended or began. I asked him what was wrong. 

“I have the flu,” the server said. “But the managers said it’s too busy for me to leave.” 

This situation was not shocking. If theater people say, “The show must go on,” then restaurant managers say, “Wash your damn hands, and get back on the floor.” 

Sickness in the workplace has more often than not been treated as a business decision. Instead of looking at the situation from a health perspective, many times it is still about maximizing profit.

“I understand where management comes from. Losing a server can lead to poor service, or everyone having a bad night, and then that’s on the manager,” student Eric Neel said. “But right now, I think we need to tend to the current climate.”

In 2020, this completely flipped. During the pandemic, fear from COVID-19 caused employers to take almost every account of sickness seriously. In many cases, if an employee showed any symptoms of COVID, they were sent home. I was glad my workplace took COVID seriously, but it made me laugh thinking about previous accounts, “You realize other illnesses, like the flu, are contagious too, right?” 

However, in my experience, after a year of the pandemic the momentum diminished, and sickness was not taken as seriously. Now, it seems, the only illness worth staying home for is COVID—anything else is free game. 

Since most jobs in places like restaurants are part-time, workers do not have allocated sick days to take off—and many times, it is at the discretion of the manager or owner. On the other hand, even if an employee receives time off, they do not have any form of paid-leave. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, even when service workers are full-time, 41% of these employees lack paid-sick leave. 

The lack of taking health seriously in the workplace has contributed to a culture of “pushing through the sickness.” 

“It’s a normal thing to go in while knowing you’re sick, and kind of joke around about not feeling great,” Neel said. 

Although companies and individuals would rather not lose money from sick leave, biology does not care about a business model. Working while sick will likely lengthen the recovery time, and may leave some in even worse conditions than they started in. I’m not a doctor, but in my book the best medicine is rest, fluids… and not working.

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