It’s a classic humble-brag in the hospitality industry and it comes in a hundred different and ever more dramatic forms:
‘I haven’t taken a single sick day in five years.’
‘I once broke four fingers / sliced my hand open / passed out at work and I stayed to finish the shift.’
‘I’ve worked fifteen days in a row with maybe three hours of sleep a night.’
When people say these things they’re most often greeted with admiration, praise and a variation of ‘you’re exactly the kind of person I want working in my kitchen / hotel / company!’
It’s true that in any industry being reliable and hard-working is non-negotiable and your entire team can be compromised if one person continuously lets you down. However, there’s a big difference between someone who time and again calls in sick on a Monday morning twenty minutes before a shift begins and someone who shows up 99% of the time and gives it their all but then has genuine need of some time off.
Sadly, it’s the second person in this scenario who feels pressurized to show up no matter how unwell they are (physically or mentally) because they’ve bought into the ‘show up unless you’re dead’ mentality which is perpetuated by examples like those listed at the beginning of this article.
This harmful and frankly outdated mentality has no place in the modern workplace. It has been proven time and again that when staff are encouraged to put their physical and mental wellbeing first, their work performance improves and is far more consistent. People who know that their employers genuinely care about their wellbeing are far more willing to go the extra mile; because they know that they are more than just a worker bee in the eyes of their employer, they are a human with needs that have to be respected and supported.
I’m sure we can all identify with the following scenario (which just goes to show how embedded this ‘work or die’ mentality is in our minds whether consciously or not):
You’ve been up all night rushing to and from the bathroom with some kind of stomach bug and by the time the sun rises, you’re thoroughly exhausted and in no fit state to work. But instead of immediately calling in sick, you lie in a state of anxiety and doubt whether you really need the day off at all? You’re stressing because you know that inevitably, one of your colleagues is going to raise the question of whether you’re actually unwell or just bunking off.
Funny that he’s sick today when we have this big event on…
Don’t you think it’s odd that just yesterday he mentioned how tired he is and how much he’d like a day off?
We’ve heard it all before. Maybe we’ve been the person speculating these things about someone else. Regardless, instead of simply taking the time we need to recover, we either drag ourselves to work when we really shouldn’t or else we take the day off and spend all day stressing instead of relaxing and recovering in peace.
Worse than this physical example are the hundreds or even thousands of people who are struggling with a mental illness and who feel unable to ask for much needed time off because of it. Up until fairly recently, asking for a day off because of mental health trouble was unheard of or seen as insufficient cause for a sick day. And even today, even though a lot of the stigma surrounding mental illness has been broken down, how many of us would feel truly comfortable calling in and saying ‘I can’t come into work today because I’ve had three panic attacks during the night and I’m absolutely shattered.’
I know I’d struggle to make that call and I know it’s because I’d fear judgement or a lack of empathy from the person on the other end of the line.
The only way to overcome and eradiate the ‘work or die’ way of thinking is to start with ourselves. When someone speculates that a colleague off sick is ‘faking it’ or ‘not sick enough to take the day off’ – call them out on it! When a colleague who you know suffers from a mental illness is seen to be struggling, take them aside and offer help or just an understanding shoulder to lean on.
Encourage your company to educate all employees about mental health and to adopt a more empathic and caring approach to employee relations generally. Get some strategies in place to help people to prioritize their wellbeing while still giving their all at work. This balance is possible with the right tools at your disposal. Start with yourself, and then strive to help others. This is where all positive change begins.