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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Even in Sickness, Wedded to the Job

Cultural Norm Makes It Hard to Stay Home

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page F06

Earlier this month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) fainted after she complained of a stomach virus. She went on to give a speech about health care later that day. According to press reports, she was introduced by former U.S. Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.), who told the crowd that Clinton was there against her doctor's advice because she was committed to talking about health care.

Well, what about her own health care?

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The thing is, Clinton is not alone. How often do we drag ourselves to work when we're too sick to be in public? And how much work do we really get done when we go? It's a question I seem to ponder every year around this time, when the flu works its way through cube-land and every other sort of workplace.

People are "pretty committed to coming in and working. I remind them a hero ain't nothing but a sandwich," said Llelwyn F. Grant, a spokesman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But apparently many of us feel like we need to be a hero. Really, would Clinton have been able to give that speech a couple of days later? Could your cube-mates maybe have taken a day or two to sip chicken soup and tea, and maybe have done some e-mail checking couchside, to keep you away from their germs?

"Often, we encourage workers to stay at home because a lot of times they're contagious even before they're showing symptoms," Grant said. "One day before the symptoms and up to seven days after getting sick, they could pass the virus to other staff members."

But the truth is, we come to work sick. We make our co-workers sick, who then make their kids sick, who then make their classmates sick, who make their parents sick. And, yes, it's enough to make you sick. That is why the employee who comes to work sniffing, sneezing and hacking becomes the office pariah.

And yet when it's our turn, just try and find us curled up in the La-Z-Boy.

"I think sometimes people who come to work when they are sick enjoy that daily routine more than they think," said Terry Banks, senior vice president at the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm. At least that's the case with him. "It's great when you stay home for the first hour or two, but then you might miss certain aspects of your life. I haven't had a sick day in a long time. I usually feel like I'm sick and I can't go to work. Then by 10:30, it's sort of like, 'Okay, that hour was great. What about the other six?' "

Perhaps we should take the cue from another public figure: Not long after Clinton fainted, the Treasury Department sent out an announcement. Secretary John W. Snow "has a bad chest cold and will not be traveling to the meeting of the G7 finance ministers . . . in London," the press release stated.

I almost fell off my chair when I read it. How unusual for official Washington. Or for any of us, really.

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