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Updated 30 August 2013

'I won't be coming in today'

When it comes to sick leave, you find the shirkers, the realists and the hair shirt martyrs, says Susan Erasmus.

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When it comes to sick leave, you find the shirkers, the realists and the hair shirt martyrs, says Susan Erasmus.

Granted - some people are just more healthy than others. Some hardly ever get ill, others are never really well. And often, but certainly not always, it’s more a state of mind than one of body.

In certain respects I am an old-style Calvinist – even when I am really ill, I still feel guilty when I am off sick. But in the 30 years I have worked, I have noticed three distinct groups when it comes to the sensitive issue of sick leave.

The shirkers

The shirker will stay at home for three days, because his toe is sore, he thinks he may be coming down with something, or his ear is itching. Or the dog’s looking a bit bleak. Or he’s feeling a bit down. Whatever.

Point is, he doesn’t feel like going to work and any excuse will do. This is the guy who takes two weeks off for the flu, which all their colleagues manage to club into submission in three days.

They are always sicker than anyone else – if you’ve got the runs, they think they have at least bowel cancer. You get a headache, but they always get migraines.

(Reminds me of the story of the guy who phoned in to work to say he wasn’t coming in, because he had anal glaucoma. On being asked about this peculiar condition, he said “I can’t see this arse coming to work today”.)

Diagnosis: this one uses up the three-year allocation for sick leave within the first year – and undergoes a startling miracle cure when normal leave starts being deducted for every workday missed.

The realists
This person will not go to work if he suspects he has measles, or pink eye or some other nasty thing he can pass on to all his colleagues. He phones the doctor, gets the right medication, and stays in bed as he is meant to do.

Everyone gets sick from time to time – we are only human – and the realist knows this. And a sick person at work isn’t going to be very productive either.

A realist will also go to work, and see how he feels, and leave early if it isn’t good, whereas the shirker will decide the previous evening that nothing good can come from this slight gum bleed.

(There is a phenomenon called ‘presenteeism’, which refers to people being at work, but doing absolutely nothing.)

When you look at a realist’s sick leave record, there will be a few days taken off each year – often in a single chunk. There is no suspicious Friday/Monday sick leave pattern.

Diagnosis: the only time this one will ever use up his sick leave is if he is in an accident, or needs to have a big operation. Otherwise he will go for months without missing a beat. But when he is ill, he will take to his bed and get better quickly.

The hair shirt martyr
This is the grown-up version of the child who never a missed a single day for twelve years during his schooling – and has a certificate to prove it. It’s the only certificate he has. Truth is, his mother would have sent him to school with the Bubonic Plague in order to maintain this unbroken record.

He truly believes that misery loves company, and when he is indeed ill once in seven years, he is not at all shy to share his germs with everyone.  He wilts at the water cooler, coughs at the copier and drools at his desk when he should clearly have been in bed – just to make absolutely no one can accuse him of shirking. And he moans all day while describing every last symptom to his unfortunate co-workers. Martyrs seldom believe in suffering in silence.

He secretly believes that everything will come to a standstill if he isn’t there. Sometimes this might be true, but often it is not. In fact, things would have run a lot more smoothly if people didn’t have to cope with this Moaning Minny on top of having to do his work as well.

Diagnosis: This guy will always be the last one to hold the burning fort. While there is something to be said for that, the line between bravery and stupidity is a fine one. Martyrs went out of fashion in the 1600s, but this one would wear a hair shirt if he could find one. Thing is, he would talk about it all the time, scratch all the time and make your life a misery.

Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer for Health24.

 
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