Shouldn’t You Call in Sick When You’re Sick?

How many of you work for an organization that rewards perfect attendance? 

I was at an awards ceremony at a hospital not long ago. They were giving service awards to employees who had been there for 5, 10, even 40 years. The chief nurse wanted to give a certified nurse’s assistant an award for never calling in sick once after working there for 35 years. I asked her if this was really a good thing. She looked at me in disbelief. “Of course it’s a good thing! She’s never called in, not once, in her whole time here. That’s amazing. That shows real dedication.”

I just stood there in stunned silence, wondering how she and I could be so far apart on this issue.  

As it happened, I was friendly with this CNA, so I asked her if she had ever been sick in those 35 years and came to work anyway. “Of course,” she said. “I got sick, everybody gets sick. I just put a mask on over my face and get to work.” 

Is this really what we want to celebrate?

As I write this, COVID-19, or coronavirus, is everywhere. There are over 250,000 cases and nearly 11,000 deaths globally. Industry conferences are being cancelled, cruise ships are being quarantined, and stores are selling out of toilet paper hand sanitizer all across the U.S. Do we really want to incentivize employees to come to work when they don’t feel well? Especially CNAs, who assist with feeding, bathing, and toileting people who are already sick?

Sick days exist for a reason. I understand not every company has them, but this one did. Generous sick leave, in fact. Part of me thinks this is a generational thing. My parents (and even me, to some extent) grew up believing that you keep your nose to the grindstone, work hard, and tough it out. I get it. 

But times are changing. Even before the coronavirus, I started to see signs in workplaces and elementary schools telling people to stay home if they didn’t feel good. And now, we’re socially isolating, sheltering in place, self-quarantining. And it makes good sense. Keep your germs to yourself.

The fact that this chief nurse was celebrating this CNA is incentivizing all the wrong things. I think people should take care of themselves and should be given time to rest, relax, and recover. The message she sent was the opposite of that. Maybe it’s generational, maybe it’s her set of values, but even after this virus passes, we need to tell our employees that their health and well-being is important to us as an organization and stop handing out perfect attendance awards. 

Author: Kate Kalthoff

It's simple: leave people, places, and things better than I found them. For more than 20 years, Katherine Kalthoff has been working to improve the way healthcare organizations connect with the people they serve. She began her career at Gift of Hope, the organ procurement organization for Illinois, approaching families and securing their consent to donate a loved one’s organs for transplant. Through compassionate, empathetic listening, Kate led the Family Services team to one of the highest consent rates in the country. From there, Kate went to Advocate Health Care, Illinois’s largest healthcare system, as a Physician Relations and Business Development Manager, improving physician satisfaction and strengthening the relationships of both the employed and independent physicians with the system as a whole. Just prior to joining Northwest Community Healthcare as the Patient Experience Officer, Kate was the first Manager of Patient Experience at DuPage Medical Group where she built a platform of organization-wide service excellence through her inspiring brand of education, training, and one-on-one coaching. A much sought-after speaker and trainer, Kate has a very simple approach to her work: leave people, places and things better than you found them.

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