How sick is the workplace?

Work environments have changed, an Evening Standard columnist crows, in spite of the ongoing resistance to “flexible schedules” and “open plan” design. Sarah Sands remembers that she used to have to wait outside “gigantic offices decorated with George Stubbs pictures” to talk with her boss. Now, with the freedom to tend to family needs, and ease of communication, “staff work harder than ever.” They “cut to the chase.”[i]

Flexible Workplace News

She also says women who paved the way are now mentoring younger mothers. That turned my mind to the 61-year-old friend who wrote me this week about her female boss who threatened her with loss of job if she did not follow the rules.

Turns out, she had.  The boss had not read them, and has since apologized, urging my friend, if she ever has it wrong again, to tell her to “F*** off.”
Is this progress? I think not. One my age is at first tempted to say it is ageism, but in fact this same friend of mine had problems way back when she was in her early career and had to stay quiet about her fight to win her children back after they were abducted to Saudi Arabia. She was not working in the Middle East; she was in Denver. Today she advises parents with similar personal problems to try to keep them out of the workplace.
This becomes problematical. We all know someone, man or woman, who is getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a sick child. Or whose teenager is in trouble. Or whose parent or spouse is dying of cancer.
Coincidentally, another story in the same newspaper reports that more female than male UK workers are taking long term sick time, 72,000 versus 48,000.[ii] What do you suppose this means?
Sick Days NewsAre more women actually seriously or ill? That would be an interesting fact to probe. Could we be working too hard rising our families and managing full-time jobs? Or is the workplace a miserable place to be? Is our boss, with all his or her personal idiosyncrasies, perhaps brought on by pressures from above or at home, making us want to be ill?
Not surprising, the emphasis of the report is on the £100 billion a year lost to the national economy. Methinks the research needs to dig deeper. And we need to look at that £100 billion closer, to see if it isn’t compensating for inadequate government social policy.
Now I wonder about those cafeteria-type, flexible benefits, “sick days” that some of us get in the United States. Don’t we often take those to tend to our ailing children because there is no other choice? (What ever happened to the idea of nurseries at work for just this kind of situation?) Aren’t some of us using our own sick days to accompany a disabled parent to doctor appointments? And isn’t it true that some people do not take sick days at all because we have so much work to do?
There is no national standard for sick days yet,[iii] but it is worth noting that federal government employees get more time than most others, and that government employees in general get more than people in the private sector. Looking at U.S. statistics, it is glaringly obvious that higher-paid workers get more time off than their low wage staff.
Two things especially worry me. One, in San Francisco, the first city to pass guaranteed sick leave (2006), 28 percent of the bottom wage quartile “faced layoffs or total hours reduced as a result of the paid sick leave mandate.[iv]
Another is the shocking breadth of the uses in the proposed legislation, which was introduced in my state, Arizona: “The paid sick days could have been used by employees to recover from an illness, seek medical diagnosis or treatment, care for a sick family member, in the event of a public health emergency, or to seek services related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking” (my italics).[v] It may explain why HB 2741 was not even considered and has since died. It also indicates how very sick our society is.

[i] “The office has become a new flexible friend,’ Evening Standard, Tuesday, February 11, 2014, p 15.

[ii] Joseph Watts, “Women make up two thirds of workers on long-term sick leave,’ Evening standard, February 11, 2014, p. 10.

[iii] The Healthy Families Act, S.631, introduced and referred to committee March 20, 2012, is given a 2% chance of being enacted (slightly above average).

[iv]  San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance: Outcomes for Employers and Employees,  Institute for Women’s Policy Research, February 2011, p. 13.

[v] “Sick Leave,” Wikipedia, accessed February 12, 2014.

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