“I don’t do illness”


A CEO I once worked with uttered these immortal words.  I kept my own counsel at the time, but I thought they were bunkum.

I accept that I am responsible for my health and I do my best to maintain it.  However, staying illness free is not always within your control, as I discovered last summer when my chronic, one-sided, debilitating headache turned out to be shingles.

I was reminded of my erstwhile CEO’s comments when Jeremy Clarkson recently apologised to his fans for having contracted pneumonia, and said he hadn’t had a day off in over 30 years.  This is laudable and – if true – remarkable.  But I am wary about folk who tout their attendance record as a badge of honour in this way.

I have worked in organisations where sickness was seen as being for wimps.  Not so long ago, I worked with two senior women who had short spells of time off, following surgery, and were apologising to the rest of us via email for not being at work.  One of them, who was also diabetic, returned before she was fit and caused several colleagues – myself included – some anxiety.  While working there, I went down with a chest infection in mid-winter, partly brought on – I suspect – by conducting a long disciplinary meeting in an ice-cold meeting room in a swanky hotel. (The heating turned out not to be functioning.)  I returned to work sooner than I should have done, and a week later felt so awful, I went off sick again.  When I went to the doctor, the reason for my abnormal fatigue soon became apparent – I didn’t have full lung function.  Rest and antibiotics soon did the trick and, while my team were very understanding, sympathy from my managers was notably absent.

Sickness absence does of course need managing.  Malingering can happen and must be addressed.  However, a healthy organisation must surely aim for balance and accept that illness, operations and accidents are an unfortunate, but unavoidable, part of working life.  Such episodes, if met with understanding and compassion, build loyalty.

We can live without your barbs for a few weeks, Jeremy.  Get well soon.

Thank you for reading this.  Have a safe, healthy and happy Bank Holiday.


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