Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Advice from our European Colleagues: Stay Home if You’re Sick by Dr. Mary Manjikian

Europeans like Obama a lot. And that worries some Americans. Throughout the Obama campaign, one theme his opponents raised was the idea that deep down, Obama wanted American to be more like Europe. For many conservatives, that invoked the specter of socialized medicine, trade unions run amok, shorter work days, longer vacations and the end of America’s competitiveness in the global economy. It meant that Obama envisioned a softer, more feminized America which no longer carried the same weight in foreign affairs. Instead of owning its position of leadership in the world, many feared, America would likely give up its values, ideals and history, in an attempt to be popular in the international system. And popularity might be achievable, but it could come at the cost of self-respect and dignity.

As the current debate over health care shows, this theme of what and how much to borrow from Europe still dominates politics and both sides have valid points. But I’d like to suggest that Americans have already begun adopting one positive European innovation. The radical European idea sweeping America? It’s called “staying home when you’re sick” -- and it just might catch on in your neighborhood.

Some brief comparisons: Last year the average American federal employee took less than three days of sick leave while the average European took eleven. And most European nations offer paid sick leave for all workers, while somewhere between 34 - 50 fifty percent of Americans get no paid sick leave. Are these Americans who report to work no matter what simply healthier than Europeans? No. Rather, employer organizations point to a pattern of ‘presenteeism’ in America. Presenteeism refers to the hours of lost productivity generated when sick workers come to work anyway where they do little, make expensive mistakes for the company when they are under the weather and spread contagion, leading to even more lost work time.

I first learned about “staying home when you’re sick” when I reported to work at the American Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands as a young foreign service officer. Despite a nasty flu I’d picked up while travelling, I came in to the office -- mostly to demonstrate my commitment to the organization, no matter what. My Dutch colleagues politely explained that one was granted sick leave for a reason and that infecting your colleagues was considered rude rather than admirable. I went home to rest until I felt better.

As we cope with swine flu this winter, many American businesses have begun issuing guidance to their workers that sounds suspiciously European. Businesses are even acknowledging that many working parents save sick leave to use with sick children and simply soldier on when they themselves are ill. The federal government recently reminded workers not to endanger themselves or colleagues by reporting for work when ill, and even called for flexibility in situations where employees may have sick children or a flu-related school closing to cope with.

It will be interesting to look at the statistics next spring when the flu has passed. Will businesses report lost income due to increased use of sick leave, or will they report that they now have healthier, more productive workers as a result? Will we indeed find out that this is an idea borrowed from Europe which makes sense in the United States as well? It just may be that ‘staying home when you’re sick’ is a European idea whose time has come in America as well.

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