Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sick Days

During the time that my dad was on chemo and therefore immunocompromised, I became acutely aware (read: completely paranoid) about being exposed to germs.  I’ve always been a little bit of a germaphobe, and, armed with the knowledge that it was entirely possible that something to which I was exposed could result in (1) my not being able to be around him once I realized I was getting sick, or – worse – (2) my accidentally contaminating him if I went to see him and didn’t realize I was getting sick, I was on perpetual high guard about germs and illness at that time.

All of that got me started thinking about sick day policies at work and at school.  Every school that I know of has an award for Perfect Attendance.  Many offer rewards for not missing school ranging from getting to choose one’s teachers for the next school year, getting to go to a party, getting vouchers for free stuff like ice cream and pizza (that seems at least a little counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?), and – the one I don’t understand at all because it’s something that would never have motivated me as a kid – getting to wear a hat to school.  At my kids’ school, students can earn the privilege of getting exempt from the final exam in any class if they end up with an yearly average of at least a 90 and have come to school sick amassed less than three absences ALL YEAR. 

Isn’t it a proven fact that a quicker recovery is much more probable if a person who is sick gets extra rest and takes in extra fluids, both of which are impossible if that person is on-the-job as a student or an employee?  If that sick person does come to work or school, it is a sure thing that he or she is not performing up to his or her full potential.  Oh, and, if that sick person has something that is contagious like a cold, isn’t it a certainty that he or she is spreading those germs all around, which could potentially result in a greater loss of productivity when others in the office or school catch the illness??

One of my kids did a science fair project once to determine which public place was the most germ-infested.  Samples from ten different locations around our town were put into petri dishes.  The one that grew the most grossness was the sample from the front door of City Hall.  I’ll leave that discussion for another time.  Second place went to the front door of the school building.  Yep, people are getting sick at school as often as they coming to school sick.

I don’t think that colleges care if kids have Perfect Attendance Awards listed on their high school resumes, and I doubt prospective employers do, either.  If I were in charge of hiring someone for a job, I would NOT hire someone who had a record of never missing work.  From my perspective, Perfect Attendance implies a person has almost undoubtably come to school or work sick and carelessly spread their germs around at some point.  I’m not advocating playing hooky or skipping school or being a slacker when there’s no legitimate reason; I just think it’s better to take a sick day when one is, well, sick!
Some of the funding for schools is based on the average number of students who are present at school each day, a figure that they call the Average Daily Attendance.  So school administrators are highly motivated to do their best to highly motivate their students to show up every day.  I think schools are, in general, also focused on the fact that kids who miss a lot of school aren’t likely to be learning as much as they could be.  That said, though, I think it’s a bad idea to have a Perfect Attendance Award that is so enticing that the consequences of coming to school sick outweigh the benefits of staying home to recover.  School employees typically get one sick-day off per month; why do kids, in cases like my children’s school, only get a few day off per year, or – worse – none if they want whatever Perfect Attendance carrot that is being dangled in front of them??

And don’t get me started on the value of mental health days.  What about an employee who takes a day off to go on a field trip with their child or to attend an awards program at their child’s school?  I think that’s commendable, much more so than it would be if that person missed the chance to be present for such an event. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if the employee missed work to go to see their child get a Perfect Attendance Award at school?)

Something I’ve learned since my dad got sick is that time is a finite resource and making time to be present in the lives of your loved ones should trump everything else – money, recognition, and awards for Perfect Attendance.  When I think about missing out on taking care of a loved one in their time of need (including oneself) just to avoid not missing work, Perfect Attendance seems anything BUT perfect.  I missed work whenever I felt I needed to be there with my dad while he was sick, and sometimes even when I wasn’t really needed but I just wanted to be with him.  From my perspective, there is so much more of a risk from not missing work or school in cases like that, and, I’m sure, Regret from something like that is a tough pill to swallow.

After my dad went on ahead on the Wednesday after the Christmas Break, my kids missed the next two days of school.  If ever there was a good reason for them to take a sick day, that was it.  We were all heartsick and heartbroken, but we were together, and that was the only thing that helped any of us at all.   After the memorial service, we packed up and headed back home on that Sunday, feeling obligated to get back to school and work on that Monday.  I wasn’t sure any of us would be able to wake up that next morning and go about our lives like things were normal.  And, thankfully, we didn’t have to.  I like to think that Dad had some pull Upstairs because we ended up getting the next two days out of school for snow, and so we had two extra days to grieve as a family unit, still not nearly enough but, as Dad would say, “Better than nothing!”

In China, health officials use a thermometer that looks like a gun to take people’s temperatures to limit the spread of germs for things like the Swine Flu.  I’m only half-kidding when I say maybe we need something like that to check people for fevers when they are coming into the school building or employees in a large company as they get to work.

I’m honestly not sure what the solution is for keeping kids or employees from not missing school or work when they aren’t sick or keeping the ones who are sick from coming, but I do know what is currently being done is not a good idea.  The fact that we obviously can’t rely solely on human decency and honesty and internal motivation makes me sick.

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