grocery store aisle
Employers need to recognize that pressuring workers to avoid sick days or denying them time off will only worsen their health situation and put others’ health at risk. Photo: Unsplash/Provided
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Paradigm of presenteeism

I have always considered myself a hardworking person. Whether I’m completing assignments for class, volunteering in my community, or baking a cake, I never want my work to be perceived as shoddy or — heaven forbid — lazy. I’ll admit, I’ve been prone to the bouts of procrastination that many of my peers have also experienced, but I believe I always redeem myself by persevering because, above all else, I have never been a quitter. 

So, it’s safe to say that my friends, family, and I were all shocked when, on a whim, I quit my job.

I worked in a grocery store deli in Toronto. It was one of those overly expensive places that didn’t accept coupons and was almost exclusively filled with elderly customers that didn’t want to deal with the crowds of bigger and cheaper stores. My job entailed slicing cold cuts and cheeses, serving salads, and generally helping out wherever I was needed. 

It doesn’t sound at all like a job that someone would enjoy, but I did. I even found it fun. I didn’t mind the smelly deli counter or some of my unhelpful coworkers. The job was easy enough and I enjoyed talking to the customers. 

Many of my coworkers found the customers unpleasant, but this never bothered me. After spending so much time at home due to the pandemic, I was eager to talk to people. I was happy to walk around the store for 20 minutes with the Greek dementia patient who was sure we sold freshly baked Greek bread (we didn’t), or joke with the man who was a little too eager to discuss his preference for turkey over other meats. 

So, I was disappointed when I caught a cold for the first time in two years and was unable to make it to my shift that week. But I was even more disappointed in my section and store managers who made it very clear that, if I couldn’t find someone to take my shift, I’d be expected to come into work. 

I was appalled. I hadn’t eaten or gotten out of bed in two days, had a high fever, and worst of all, was coughing almost nonstop. I knew it would pass, but not in time for my shift. Our schedules were made according to availability, so no one could take my shift on such short notice. I was already stressed from trying to postpone tests and due dates at school with difficult professors — that’s a story for another time. 

Worst of all, I couldn’t believe that in 2021, after over a year of living through a pandemic, my employers would rather have me stand for hours and continue coughing under my mask as I served our elderly customers meat that they would later serve their families and consume themselves. They offered no compassion or help. They only pressured me to come in and disregarded the concerns I expressed about possibly spreading my illness to others. So, I quit. 

I continued to think about the incident and how it related to an even bigger problem in Canada: people going to work sick and furthering the spread of illnesses as a result.

According to the August 2021 Lifeworks Mental Health Index™ Report, approximately 54 per cent of Canadians do their job when feeling unwell at least one day per week. The report also says that those who work while ill experience a significant decrease in their mental health and productivity as a result. Many people are aware of how easily illnesses can spread but, evidently, continue to go into work while sick. 

Why? Simple — either they can’t afford to stay home or they are facing presenteeism.  

The phenomenon of employees attending work while they are unwell is known as presenteeism. It often happens because employees feel they have to be at work no matter what and employers don’t do a good enough job of encouraging employees to prioritize their health. This was a problem before the pandemic and has since become a popular topic of discussion, although there is no evidence that the issue has improved as a result. Moreover, many Canadians have an inadequate number of sick days per year and in many cases, none at all. This means that it is commonplace for Canadians to be docked wages for staying home due to sickness. 

I may sound like a complaining and disgruntled former employee — maybe I am. The reality is that I was in a very privileged position to be able to quit my job at a moment’s notice. However, a large majority of people simply can’t afford to miss a day’s wages let alone leave a job altogether. What if my parents didn’t pay for my tuition? What if I had children of my own to support or relied on that job to be able to afford food, rent, and pay bills? None of these scenarios apply to me, but they do apply to so many Canadians who simply have to decide between a paycheck and taking time to recuperate when they are sick. 

The fear of missing out, being perceived as lazy, or failing to live up to your boss’ expectations are factors that contribute to presenteeism for many people, including myself. It existed before the pandemic and continues to persist today. If there is one thing that we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that going to work is not worth possibly infecting our coworkers and further harming ourselves. Employers need to recognize that pressuring workers to avoid sick days or denying them time off will only worsen their health and put others’ health at risk. It is likely to result in a decrease in productivity and a decline in workers’ abilities to properly perform their jobs. So, a message to all employers: let them take that sick day for everyone’s benefit.