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Being Sick is Human

Two weeks ago it was less than 48 hours before I was boarding a plane for a client engagement I had been preparing for over the previous few weeks.

I had been up all night. My head felt like it was in a vice and my throat and body hurt all over. I knew it wasn’t a good sign. My brain went into overdrive working through every scenario I could think of to ensure I was on that plane and attending that engagement. My first thoughts weren’t, “How do I get better and prioritize my health?”, but rather “I must press on and do whatever it takes to follow through on this commitment.” The truth was, I was sick and there was no amount of drive or willpower that could change that. I don’t like making decisions based on circumstances beyond my control that impact my reputation and livelihood, but the decision had been made. Within a few hours, I canceled my flight and was offering to do anything I could to still be involved from my bed as I battled COVID. I was heartbroken.

I know I’m not alone in this somewhat delusional thinking. On one hand, pushing through work when sick is a demonstration of commitment to delivering on expectations for clients, teams, and managers, but on the other, it’s ignoring basic human needs to survive. As a competitive athlete and throughout my career, I have been programmed to believe that being sick is not an excuse and most certainly is a sign of weakness. What’s worse is that others have to pick up your slack when you give in to being sick. Your manager can even use it as a bargaining chip for future requests. They can say, "Get better” then shame you into working double time to make up for lost productivity.

From my experiences, I have tightly intertwined value with productivity. To segregate the two requires trust that my clients, partners, managers, and co-workers see me as valuable outside the context of a deliverable, but this has not been my experience throughout most of my career or as an athlete. You are as good as what you last produced and invisible otherwise. Time is money. Being present is influence. Following through on commitments is accountability and results. When you’re sick as a corporate employee or a sole proprietor, like me, time, influence, accountability, and results are all impacted. So what should we do?

Over the last few years, we have seen a shift within organizations to support employee health and well-being. I have seen how, when done well, this has truly supported many and positively impacted individuals and teams. Progress is being made, yet I’m still not sure organizations know how or want to shift expectations or adjust goals to support employees to prioritize their health and well-being. I also don’t think individuals know when and how to advocate for themselves, so they continue to push through out of fear of backlash or negative consequences.

Productivity is critical to success, but it could also be a foundational issue preventing our workforce evolution. I’m not saying productivity is the problem, because it‘s critical for progress. The problem is that productivity is the foundation for setting expectations for the essential parts of a successful organization: forecasting, budgeting, hiring, etc. These metrics need to be adaptable and include additional factors to support human health. We are not robots, so sometimes the math of it all doesn’t add up. I think this is a very difficult concept for many leaders that have been leading over the last few decades to see, accept, and shift management practices to support. Just like I have programmed myself to not want to give in to being sick out of fear of repercussions, leaders and organizations are kicking and screaming to make decisions based on circumstances beyond their control that impact their organization’s results. It’s ok to say we are a human-first organization and that impacts our outcomes. It’s when we pretend we aren’t organizations made up of humans and set expectations around not being human that get us into trouble.

I look at my recent scenario and have to tell myself the hard truth. I am the organization and the employee. I must give myself time to be sick and trust that the organizations and clients I work with see me and my value beyond this. As a business, I must plan for being human and expect missed opportunities and canceled commitments to prioritize my health and well-being. That’s ok and appropriate. Being sick is human.

How are you prioritizing yourself and focusing on getting better when you are sick? How can you support your organization to be human first without repercussions? How do your views of value and productivity impact your thoughts and actions when you and others are sick?

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