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Workplace epidemic — when a culture of work becomes a health hazard

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Apparently, some sort of disease is going around, and I have fallen victim to it. Luckily for me, I haven’t had any symptoms other than a sore throat. Still, even if I were coughing up blood, I would still be expected to show up to school or work. I’d do it too, and so would you.

Has anyone really stopped to think about how bizarre and nonsensical it is that sick people in our society are expected to continue working like there’s nothing wrong? The reasoning goes that, if you’re well enough to stand, you’re well enough to work. I’m fairly certain that wrestling with a cough, runny nose, sore throat, drowsiness, cramps, diarrhea, etc. can’t be good for productivity. But never mind all that, what about customers and co-workers? Why do we need to endanger them as well? It’s irresponsible, as well as cruel.

It doesn’t need to be this way. In East Asia, where hard work is valued just as much by the culture, if not more so, people who are ill will wear face masks to avoid spreading germs. Even this small precaution would make a positive difference, yet we in the West are too proud to wear them, and thus: our annual epidemics of colds and flus.

There is something else at work here, something that goes beyond mere work ethic. It seems as if it is not enough to engage in work. For it to be truly edifying, you must suffer from that work also. If you can spread that blessed suffering born of honest toil to others, all the better. This is not work ethic, this is work martyrdom.

This goes beyond merely forcing employees to come in sick. We see it when schools assign copious amounts of homework, even when most or all of the material could be covered in class. We see it when we are all forced to get a paying job, even when there are clearly more people than there are jobs that need doing. We see it in the slashing of benefits and stagnation of wages, even when costs of living spiral out of control.

Don’t get me wrong, hard work, and a willingness to do it, is indeed a virtue. There comes a point, however, when continuing to slog away becomes painful and counterproductive. Yet we still call it virtue when that happens. I, for one, am not at all comfortable when needless suffering is considered “good” by society.

So please, let your sick and wounded go home. There is nothing you will lose that would not be lost anyway. Labour and its fruits may well be valuable, but (if you’ll pardon the cliché) if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.

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