Lucy Mangan

“Three days in bed with a bug did more good than a recent holiday in Norfolk”: how sick days became the new mini-break

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Lucy Mangan
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I’ve just been the perfect amount of ill. This is a very narrow target for a virus to hit requiring delicate triangulation. Bedridden but well enough to watch Netflix but too ill to work; really, properly too ill to work. Not just to go into the office. To work. This includes the sending of and replying to emails, the making and taking of calls and the fretting over not being at work. My body and brain were sufficiently shut down by their viral load that it was simply not an option. In short, the seasonal onslaught of illness has begun – and it’s brilliant.

When I told my friends about my lurgy, the reaction was envy rather than sympathy. “You lucky cow,” said one. “Why didn’t you call me over so that I could try and catch it?” “That happened to me once,” sighed another. “I watched the whole of House. And all the cat videos on YouTube. All of them.”

“Better than a holiday,” was a common refrain. And it’s true. Illness – of the right sort, I hastily add – has become something to be longed for, even courted, and recalled fondly in later years, instead of avoided at all costs. A few days’ illness is the new hotel mini-break. It’s become the most reliable way of getting genuine rest. Three days in bed battling a bug did more good than a recent week supposedly on holiday in Norfolk. I can’t remember the last time I went 72 hours without sending at least a few emails, troubleshooting just a few problems, accepting just a few commissions… The only way it stops these days is if something else takes us out of service entirely.

I don’t know when the world went so mad that a bout of sickness became A Good Thing, but clearly it has. This demented inversion of the normal way of things shows how impossible it has become to enjoy true free time now that our employers can always reach us. Yes, you can switch your work phone off and refuse to check emails, or even throw a sickie but this hardly solves the problem. The nagging knowledge that voicemails and messages are building up means most of us crack within the hour or wish we’d never bothered phoning in with the fake sore throat. It’s easier just to deal with stuff than face the backlog or have the risk of unknown disaster scratching away at the back of your mind all day/evening/weekend/holiday.

According to a CIPD survey of companies last year, 31% of staff report a rise in people coming into work while they are ill. Common sense suggests that figure would shoot up if you included all the people who didn’t come in but still managed to work from their sickbeds at home. My friend, who is a nurse at a walk-in centre, is driven demented by the number of people who come in asking for antibiotics or some other medical cosh for a minor symptom for which there would be no better or more effective treatment than a day’s rest because they cannot take that day and yet cannot afford for the bug to get any worse. Which of course JUST MAKES IT WORSE.

Meanwhile – the leading cause of sick days that are taken is…drumroll please… stress! Gosh, I wonder why that could be?

We need to break this vicious cycle in which we have all become prepared to work until we drop – and then crawl on the floor to the office instead – and learn to put our health first. Employers need to accept that without this happening both we and they have nothing. And if we can’t do it? Well, a great sickness indeed infects us all.

Photography: Ellis Parrinder, iStock