Why Men Who Are Sick Insist on Going to Work

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S1: Slate Plus members, it’s survey time, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate. Slate podcasts and Slate. Plus it’ll only take a few minutes. You can find it at Slate.com slash survey.

S2: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S3: All right. So on the show, we have Forest, who is an office advocate for working from home. That’s my official title. It’s like.

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S4: I’m just going to start owning it. It’s gone from something that made me look a little frangieh to now everyone agrees. Yes, I’ll I’ll own it.

S5: This is Forrest Wickman. He’s Slate’s culture editor. But today, he is our in-house sick days advocate. Recently, he did the impossible. He got our deputy editor, Lo and Lou, one of man UPS editors, by the way, to finally take a sick day. Sound familiar?

S6: Men refusing to take sick days is one of those stereotypes that’s hard to quantify, but at least some researchers have tried. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics took a survey and it wasn’t even close. Men were 42 percent less likely than women to take off when they were sick in our office. That’s been the perception that some men come in sick, no matter the risks for anyone else. As for saying his preoccupation with this has been a joke in the office for a while, but with a certain potential pandemic in the news lately, this question has taken on some more urgency. So I decided to invite one of those sick men from our office onto the show to explain why he does it.

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S7: Hello and welcome to MAN UP, I’m your host, Aymond is mine, and on this show we crack questions big and small about manhood. This week, figuring out what it will take to get guys to stay home when they’re sick.

S8: So a lot of people have been telling me to talk to Forest about this because they’re like Forest is an advocate for people staying at home when they’re sick. Why do you think you’ve gotten that kind of reputation, Asli?

S2: I mean, I think part of it is that so I have a peeve not only about people coming into work sick, but also have a peeve about people saying something is like just a cold. And so that’s why they come to work. Because for me, when I get a cold, I tend to be sick for like one to two weeks and then I turn into a sinus infection. And because I’m a person who wants to keep his germs at home, it means I’m working from home for one to two weeks. I don’t love that. But at Slate, most of us are working on the Internet and we have teleconferencing. The vast majority of us perhaps suspects, except for the podcasters who sometimes seem to be in studio, can just work from home. And your work is not really different. And when you’re coming to work, you might convince yourself, I’m being a better worker, but you’re actually being a much worse worker because you’re getting all your co-workers sick and making them less efficient.

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S8: So where does this passion come from? Like, is it from a personal experience that a co-worker ever get you sick?

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S2: I have definitely. I will not name names. You can name names. Some of them bleep it up. I have. I think the vast majority of the time I get sick big. It’s from the office. So that ends up being, you know, often one or two weeks at home for me. Usually it is quote unquote, just a cold. And then also it often means that I’ll get my partner sick and I’ll feel really bad about that. And then there’s tension at home. The whole thing just sucks. And it could all be avoided if people just work from home.

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S8: You know, I have to admit, I’m one of those people who will come in to work sick because I’m thinking, oh, it’s just a cold.

S2: I mean, I’m backing away from it. I’m not sick or anything.

S9: But I mean, I’m starting to wonder, like, why? Like, why am I showing up to work even if about feeling up for it?

S2: Well, this is why I think what we need to do is change the culture. And I think it’s maybe sort of happening right now where the stigma right now is often around working from home. But really, the stigma should be around working in the office. And I think that stigma’s is shifting a little bit right now. I will say also, I mean, you’re saying that you’re giving a sort of up perhaps more selfish sounding reason for why you might want to do this. I do think often it can come to give people credit. I think it can often come from a place of selflessness where you think about how if I don’t go into the office, I’m going to be creating all this work for other people. I’m going to be making other people Xoom to me. Like for the sake of this other person, I should meet with them in the flesh. And most the time I would rather you we just met over Xoom or Skype. Especially if you’re sick. Yeah. I to me, what we need to do is make it so that everyone thinks that the thing that they’re supposed to do and the thing that everybody wants them to do and the thing that is honored and praised is not continuing to work. The thing is staying from home and it’s a little tricky because you don’t want to tell people to work from home, especially if someone is, for example, your boss. But perhaps instead of suggesting that they should work from home, you could go to a podcast that your company produces and you could say, hey, maybe you guys should do an episode about people who are sick to work from home and maybe those people listen to that podcast.

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S10: Whole podcast is an intervention, actually. Yeah.

S8: Is there any one co-worker you want to specifically encourage to work from home?

S2: OK. So lately and this started before we were all terrified of coronavirus. My boss, my manager has been sick and it’s been making me anxious and it’s been making some of my co-workers anxious to be in meetings with him. And we want him to get better. And since then, it’s been like a month or something’s still not better. And we want him to not get other people sick. To be fair, I’m not sure anyone has necessarily gotten sick from him, although I did get a little sick a few weeks ago, sneeze today.

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S11: And even the psychological stress is not good.

S12: So I want it would be nice alone as much as he can can work from home and zoom in. We’re going to be talking alone soon. OK. Thank you. We’ll play him back this audio hook up.

S6: But just can you mask my voice so he doesn’t know what it is?

S12: We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we’re going to see what Lohan makes of all this. So stick around.

S10: Dude, this is a bad idea. I like. Just stop being sick. And now we’re going to have Lohan sit right next to me. Ed Husic.

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S13: I mean, prepare by chugging this vitamin C emergency packet before he gets in here.

S14: Oh, great. Low end.

S15: Oh. Oh, don’t walk into the room and just let one loose. Oh, that’s like the only one.

S16: Well, I have hot tea ready. It was the hot tea supposed to do, hopefully make it less likely that I’ll cough my lungs out while we’re talking.

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S17: How many sick days have you taken in the three weeks that you’ve been having this nasty cough?

S18: Two halves, maybe two halves. Three weeks. Two halves of days. Not even one full day.

S9: Not a full day now. So how sick are you right now? I think I’m on the way back. Oh, yeah. I’ve been saying that every day for like three weeks now. But, you know, I walk to the subway without feeling like my knees were going to give.

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S19: I mean, some of it is just does better and bad for a lot of people.

S18: Obviously, stuff in the news going on. I have a young kid who’s like in like a daycare setting for the first time. So I’m getting like the germs of like 24 kids all I want. Yeah, that’ll do it. Yeah. But I I’ve never really had a stretch like this. So it’s like a little bit surprising to me. But it also is like the ultimate example of, I guess, my hard headedness.

S20: Why do you think it’s hard headed to show up to work? While you’re sick.

S18: This is going to be going through a therapy session. No. I mean, I guess like I’m not going to come here and defend working while sick. Like I’m I’m definitely somebody who, like, doesn’t practice what I preach. Like, I will tell people if you’re feeling sick, don’t come into work. Yeah, but then I’ll do it myself.

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S10: I mean, I can tell you that when I’m sick, I’ll try and show up to the office because there’s something about performing work that makes a lot of sense to me that’s done enough to just do good work. I almost feel like I’m slacking if I’m not showing up to work and showing face and saying hi to people. I feel like office culture is a part of the job. And so if I’m just going to work from home for like two, three days in a row, I’m going to feel like I’m not doing enough to work.

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S18: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s true. I mean, you want to be seen working. You want to feel busy. And it’s like it goes both ways.

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S21: I feel like when you’re in the hum of the active office, you kind of like to feel a level productivity, whether or not people don’t like seeing you being productive.

S18: And then the other thing is probably I like my workday is probably is taken on by a lot of meetings. And so I feel often if I lose a day, I’m like letting a ton of people down.

S19: Sometimes I just have the motivation to push through it.

S10: Is there like a threshold for how sick you have to feel to take the day off?

S18: I think this is probably telling the last few times that I have taken time off for illness have been like half days like I’ll like start working and then either.

S21: I get yelled at enough, who’s yelling at you? My peers, Forest. What does it look like? It’ll either be, you know, we have an open office or be a lot of desks around each other and people like hear me cough and say, like, we used to be at a doctor. I don’t know why you’re doing the office, stuff like that. I mean, that’s like good peer pressure or it’s or it’s happening in slack.

S10: I don’t know about you, but I. There’s like some distance between when I first get sick and when I’m finally admitting to myself that I’m sick. I wonder how much it takes for you to admit to yourself that you’re sick.

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S19: It takes a lot. In order to do what I do as stupidly as I do like, it takes a certain level of denial. Mm hmm.

S18: You know, I live with someone. I’m I’m married. And so, you know, I have somebody who’ll just be like, you look like you’re getting sick. So I can hear myself say out loud, no, I don’t think so. And then it’ll pass. A part of me knows I’m gonna like eat it later.

S21: There’s a tendency and I know I don’t know if this is masculine or not, to feel like force of will is like all powerful or like the the the thing that can overrule reality. Mind over matter. Yeah. Right. Right. So if I tell myself I can get through it, then I feel like I can get through it.

S10: It feels like there’s a lot of consequence to admitting to myself that I’m finally sick. And part of it for me is ego. And I don’t think of myself as someone who’s weak and needs care. So I wonder if you could relate to that. Do you see yourself as someone who could actually tough it out?

S21: What you’re saying about, like the idea that there are life consequences to admitting that you’re sick. I think that rings really true because you you want to think you are in control. You want to think like you kind of have your days routine that like and go and going to work is just like a like a big part of this. I think, like, it’s predictable. You like, know your desk. You like know what you need to do that day. You have your calendar lined up, like admitting that you’re sick is like disruptive and it throws you off. And there’s a way in which like that, it’s hard for the ego to tolerate, but also something you also do you like.

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S19: I’m tempted to believe that likes the world won’t go on if I’m if I hit pause for myself, you know, like I I want to believe I’m instrumental in that way.

S21: You know, and I think that just says something about like the role that work can play in our lives because like, I just like don’t want to admit that if I take a sick day and everything goes on, fine without me.

S20: I wonder what emotions you feel when you do have other co-workers coming to you and saying, lower your you’re sick. Go home.

S18: Probably a mix of like embarrassment, like nobody, if it feels a little personal, it’s like, why? Why is this happening at work? And so it’s embarrassing. It’s it’s I feel a measure of defiance, like I have to tamped down. But like. Like, it’s easy to feel like, oh, you want me to go home. I’m just going to show you that I am tough enough to stick it out.

S19: You know, and that goes back to like, I don’t know, we all think we’re like superheroes. Some way. I just like. It’s hard to, like, go off even as like I like. No, it’s not true. Really just trying to understand, like, what is it that you are trying to prove to yourself? The real problem is, I feel like. I feel like I know if I get if I get sick. And don’t take care of it. It ends up being more disruptive. Like I mean, like, I know that.

S18: And but it’s like a cycle that I can’t break out of, like the problem is not me understanding. The problem is me like actually changing something. Because like I you know, if I truly believe people can, like, fight through their illness, I would tell them that they weren’t like work while they’re sick.

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S20: But, you know, I this happens over and over again. Basically, I know you’ve been like sick all week and I know that you took yesterday to stay home and work. What how did the decision play out like how did you decide that yesterday was gonna be the day they stayed home?

S19: I mean, it was pressure. Yeah, I got yelled at.

S22: Was it forest? Forest told you to stay? No. It was a lot more than just force. I mean. Now it’s in. I mean, yeah, I’m I’m shamed like it’s not you know, I wish I could say I had like come to that decision on my own, but I did it.

S17: We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back, a sociologist who knows exactly why men keep shooting themselves in the foot shares with us. Some tips for getting men to take their illnesses seriously. But first, I wanted to do a quick call out for folks would be interested in coming on the show to talk through how they to see their manhood as a work in progress or maybe someone, you know could use some help. No subject is too big or too small. We’ll hook you up with someone who’s been there, too, and we can both learn a lot in the process. Either way, we want to hear from you. So give us a call at 8 00 5 6 2 6 8 7 0 7. That’s 8 0 5. Men up 0 7. Or you can always e-mail us at man up at Slate.com. Stick around.

S23: How are you feeling? Did you get sick this winter yet? No. We managed to skip most of it. I have two young kids. That’s actually pretty remarkable. That’s amazing.

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S24: My son told his whole class he had the chronic virus yesterday. So what did he hear? All right. We’re listening to NPR on the drive in and he heard it. And so he got a note from the teacher. So I got it. And then a sister told them that she had more coronavirus than him. So that’s where we are.

S10: This is Mika, Beth, Tom here. She’s an associate professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She’s researched closely how partners handle their health issues, including getting sick. And what she found is definitely more complicated than I had originally thought.

S24: So we have some survey data that does show that men go to the doctor less often than women do. And they’re also men use less sick days than women do. It’s a little complicated. One of the reasons it’s complicated is that women are not just using sick days for themselves.

S25: They’re using sick days to take care of their children and take care of their parents. And men are less likely to do that. So those numbers are going to be a little inflated because of that. So it’s not just a matter of men are not staying home when they’re sick, but also they’re not staying home when their kids are sick or their parents are sick in the same way. But I mean, even if you take that out of the picture, there is some evidence that men take less sick days than women do. Just in terms of their own health.

S10: What do you think is the main factor here that’s preventing people from taking those days off?

S25: Well, I think part of it is that it can be a bragging point. I think I’ve I had teachers in middle school and high school who are men who would tell us about their whole career. They’d never had a sick day. And I know some people in my life who would say the same thing and say it fairly proudly. And I think it shows that you’re not weak, that you don’t get sick like other people get sick. And I think that’s really important to masculinity, that idea of being strong. But it also shows that you don’t let your own troubles get in the way of your job as provider or breadwinner or whatever that particular facet of masculinity might be. Counter-intuitively, what then happens is we also have this idea in our culture of the man flew this idea of like the dad generally who’s at home in bed and just groaning and moaning through the sickness that everyone else in his family just had. And they’re all fine. Right. And so I think what’s happening there is that that masculinity and that not wanting to take a day off and not when you take a sick day, we see that in the office. But then when they go home, there’s this idea that that now that exhaustion has really worn through and there might be other people in their life. Generally women who are kind of picking up behind them to make that possible. And women just don’t have that in the same way. Generally not.

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S10: I mean, when you get sick, do you ever just try and tough it out? I wonder where would like what’s different about the genders here?

S25: Well, so I think that this pervasive idea of masculinity, meaning being independent and being strong, that just because it’s masculinity, it doesn’t mean that just men are in fact, affected by it. That this is the model that we demand of our workers generally in the United States. And so for a woman to really be successful in the office, it often does mean or whatever her workplaces, it often does mean that she should have to tough it out, too. And so by men not taking sick days, I think they’re really that they’re making that culture at the office. What it is, which is the place for very few people feel like most people think there is a stigma attached to them taking too many days off. Be it for themselves or their kids.

S8: I mean, is the solution here just for more safeguards or should we really be trying to change workplace culture?

S24: Yeah, I think changing workplace culture also means changing workplace policies. So making it that it is possible for people to work at home or take the days off they need to take off. I even think about schools. So it used to be that schools would give these awards at the end of the year if you had perfect attendance. And I think schools are moving away from that because they’re recognizing that just that act of a plodding, perfect attendance means that you’re encouraging people to come in when they’re sick and schools don’t want people to do that. And I think workplaces aren’t where schools are. So workplaces are still applauding people for coming in when they’re sick or e-mailing people at 1:00 in the morning when we know that, you know, we a worker really should be sleeping like if they’re a traditional 9:00 to 5:00 job and not doing work at home and that kind of thing. So in general, kind of though workaholic culture, I think a lot of us are under, which reflect kind of the financial pressure and financial instability a lot of us are under. It’s going to contribute to this unhealthy behavior and just really a ripe environment for some kind of infectious disease to spread.

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S10: Yeah, so low in the co-worker who’s most sick these days because he has a child at home. So he was talking about how he finally took well half a day off yesterday to be home and just rest. And it took. I asked him what it took for him to come around and actually do that. And he said that there was the shame. The shame played a huge admitted it because other co-workers needed to put their foot down and say, hey, you’re really look like you’re on well and we don’t want to get sick. Please go home. Do you think shame is a useful tool here?

S24: I’ve been wondering this, I’ve been wondering about all the talk about hand-washing and I’ve been waiting to like witness a confrontation in the bathroom where someone doesn’t wash their hands and someone else. No, actually, I haven’t seen one yet, but I feel like we’re coming to that point. I know that I necessarily would advocate for a shame because I know there’s a lot of problems with shame and stigma that that we could see. But I certainly think it’s a good time to start to vocalize about why it is that we are worried about people coming to the workplace sick and maybe not expressing it as you are hurting all of us by being here, but trying to find a way to talk about concern for the person, concerned for their family, concerned for their well-being, and just everyone having a collective responsibility rather than seeing the sick people as the only ones with a responsibility in this situation.

S10: Let me just push back for a second, because I don’t really know if that will work, because it seems like a lot of these men understand already that it just doesn’t make sense for them to keep working even if they’re sick. But it’s just a habit that happens anyway. I wonder if there’s maybe another solution, maybe ways for men to change their habits instead of trying to understand what’s really at stake here.

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S25: Yeah, I mean, one thing that I think about is that the way men and women are socialized as kids, women are socialized a lot more about their bodies and their feelings. And then that even comes into the health care system where women are just more used to going to the doctor with the obese you iron and all these other sorts of things. And so I don’t think going to like any individual man and saying you need to figure out for yourself how it is to become more in touch with yourself and your body and your illness and all those sorts of things. But just seeing how we can even start that, that early on these conversations about we all have a collective responsibility for everyone else’s health and well-being to the extent that we have control over that. And just pay attention your body, pay attention to the early signs of symptoms and know when it’s time to stay home from work and go to the doctor.

S10: Totally. That makes a lot of sense. But it’s still I guess I don’t have a clear understanding of what it will take to get men to change.

S24: Yes, I think there’s kind of two fold so this. And so the first is what we’ve already been talking about, which is the cultural shift. And I think we’re in a great moment.

S26: I think your podcast talks about this where we are moving away from just this one model of masculinity to understand that what it means to be a man and what it means to be a real man encompasses lots of different characteristics. And so it doesn’t mean that you always have to be independent and tough and this like sturdy oak kind of idea of a person who never asks for help. But I think that these kind of alternative models of masculinity can include things like trying to protect the people around you by not trying to get them sick or trying to preserve your energy in one day so that you can be more supportive and helpful in another day. Right. By improving your health at a later time or being a good citizen and being responsible by getting your flu vaccine and all these other elements. And I think that there’s room for all of those kind of traditional notions of masculinity. And then there’s certainly room for those in new visions of masculinity. And I know. So my son, he’s five and he broke his arm a few months ago and he fell off his top bunk bed, actually, like a week after he got it.

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S23: Oh, I’m sorry for that.

S27: Said that’s you know, it was it was pretty bad. But he was in a cast for, you know, a few months and multiple people that we did not know would stop him on the street and just say, oh, that looks awful. Did you cry? You know, just. And I was taken aback. Well, the first time and then I got used to it. But this idea that they’re teaching him at five years old and they don’t even know him, that being a boy, being a man means that you shouldn’t cry when you break your arm. And I think that there’s just not room for that in this kind of new ways where thinking about masculinity moving forward. And so that’s what I’d like to see. So that’s one half. That’s the culture. Half. I think the other half is the structure half. And I think this is important for regardless of what your gender is, which is that I think there is a real cost to taking sick days that I think people often are seen by their employers as weaker and not as good workers and those sorts of things. And so I think we do need more governmental and employer policies that really allow people to take sick days without a stigma or a financial cost to it. And then we also need to make it easier for people to go to the doctors. And the way our health care system is currently set up is a lot of people might, in theory, want to go to the doctor, but not be able to afford it or not have a general practitioner. They have easy access to or those sorts of things. And so all of that, I think together really matters for encouraging everyone to take sick days when they need to and go to the doctor and get care.

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S8: So as a man who really strongly identifies with everything that you just said, I am definitely one of those person who tries to mask and tough through pain. What can I do to get started in unlearning all of that social conditioning?

S28: I think a big part of it is going to the doctor regularly just for wellness checks. I think there’s something to be said just for having a doctor that you can trust, that you regularly have contact with, who you feel comfortable kind of telling the little things to. That might be really important to your doctor in the context of regular visits, but that you wouldn’t want to tell him or her if you’re only seeing them every few years. I think that’s one part of it. And then another thing is just to kind of think back about those times where you were convinced that something that was happening to your body wasn’t a big deal and then it became a big deal. I think kind of remembering the times that you really downplayed a sickness or an illness and then it became bronchitis or something much more extreme is often helpful. So we remember past incidences to deal with the current events in the future. And so that can help us with our bodies.

S29: And that’s the show. Thank you so much for listening. If you’re enjoying it, please hit us with that good rating and your podcasting app. Also, we still need your help to figure out what we’re talking about next. We’re looking for folks who wouldn’t mind coming on the show to explain how they, too, are a work in progress. So if you think that’s you call us at 8 05 6 2 6 8 7 0 7. That’s 8 0 5 men up 0 7. Or you can always e-mail us at man up at Slate.com. And don’t forget to make sure you’re subscribed. I’m serious because we’ve got new shows every week and I’d hate for you to miss out. Man Up is hosted and written by me a minute smile. It’s produced by Cameron Drewes. Our editors are Jeffrey Blumer and Sickmann Low and Lou Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate Podcasts and June Thomas is a senior managing producer of Slate podcasts. We’ll be back next week with more men up.