Jeremy Lesniak owns a small Web design firm in Randolph, Vermont, US. He has 10 employees and hundreds of clients. Calling in sick is not an option. “I have two cellphones and a pager,” he says. “I have taken partial sick days or just worked from home, but I haven’t had a real one in over six years.”
The swine flu epidemic had employers desperately trying to keep sick workers at bay, calling into question companies that did not. The economic meltdown, however, has stepped up pressure on worker bees and bosses alike to produce from home rather than heal in bed, says Dave Couper, a career coach and corporate human resources consultant in Los Angeles, US.
Home stay: Employees are increasingly working from home on their days off.
“There’s an implicit requirement to be at work, partly because of the fear of losing your job if you’re not there,” he says. “Before, companies were okay about people being out sick. Now I don’t see that as much. I’ve known people who have emailed from their hospital room or been on conference calls where they can hardly speak, they’re so sick. The recession has made it worse.”
The self-employed—those with access to technology and connectivity—and employees in small companies with fewer prospective subs really feel the squeeze with the sneeze.
Ashleigh Harris gives high marks for flex time to her San Francisco start-up, which makes a new type of training wheel for children’s bicycles. But with only three full-time positions, herself and the CEO included, calling in sick means work languishes. “Things need to get done when they need to get done when it comes to building a successful start-up,” says Harris, the marketing director. “So if that means hopping on a conference call from my cell when I’m in bed, or sending a few key emails to hit deadlines, I’m happy to do it.”
Some workers fear demerit systems for calling in sick, or are up against policies that allow no sick pay at all. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39% of private sector employees fall into the latter category, including many millions in the service industry.
Even those who set their own sickness policies feel crunched. Gina Kazimir has an online communications firm in Maryland and prides herself on speedy service. “I don’t take ANY days off. Even when I had swine flu, I checked email at least once or twice a day—and I was so sick I could barely shower,” she says. “Vacations are a challenge. I usually make sure I have some wireless access.” Her availability to clients is expected, she says, “but I’m not sure that it increases productivity. It’s definitely bad for being sick.”
Unplugging when sick is also worse for Elie Rosenfeld in New Jersey. He heads a small niche advertising agency in nearby New York City. Not knowing what is going on at the office “would drive me nuts”, he says, so he managed a few hours of work each day during a recent bout of strep throat. “I don’t even tell some clients that I’m away,” he says. “I generally don’t expect employees to be connected the way I am, but I like them to check email, etc.”
The rise of mobile devices and computing systems that allow people to work remotely makes it easier to keep the work flowing from sickbeds.
“What it comes down to is a need to refine corporate policy,” says Cary Landis, chief executive of Virtual Global, a West Virginia provider of “cloud computing” systems that help employees work at home. “Managers and HR executives need to take a look at those policies to make sure that we’re getting the most out of it without tying a virtual rope around people who are home sick or on vacation.”
Ellen Galinsky, of the Families and Work Institute, agrees. “Work is a marathon. We keep running harder and faster,” she says. “What we know from research is that work is really much more like interval training. You need time for reset and recovery.”
©2010/The New York Times
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