It’s not just Hillary Clinton. Working while sick is a widespread American phenomenon, ingrained in our public policy and embedded in our workaholic, and often male-dominated, office culture.
By attending an event on Sunday while sick with pneumonia, Clinton succumbed to “presenteeism,” or showing up to work when you’re really not feeling well. The goal: to demonstrate that you’re a hard worker and that you’re not fragile or weak.
That’s a particularly important notion for the country’s first major-party female presidential nominee ― and judging by some reactions, Clinton succeeded on that score.
Working while sick is considered rather heroic in some circles. A 2014 survey found that about one-quarter of U.S. workers say they always go to work when they’re sick. Sixty-seven percent said those who did their job while ill were hard workers, according to the survey from the National Sanitation Foundation.
Arriving early, staying late and demonstrating total commitment to one’s job at the expense of one’s health and family is part of the subtle masculinity contest going on at the highest levels of the workforce, Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, recently told The Huffington Post.
In this way, white collar work has almost morphed into a “physical feat.” It’s “extreme” work, Berdahl said. (Even though you’re sitting down most of the time.) This is particularly true in traditionally male professions like law and business consulting, she said.
“Complete work devotion isn’t necessarily a man’s thing, but it’s been constructed that way,” Berdahl said.
So it seems pretty clear why Clinton didn’t just take a timeout. The former secretary of state has been dealing with a flood of right-wing conspiracy theories about her health in recent weeks and likely wouldn’t have wanted to fan those rhetorical flames. (Oh, well.)
People who show up to work sick do so for a number of reasons, but broadly speaking they feel they have no choice, concluded one meta-analysis of previous studies first published last November. Some know they’ll be penalized for taking sick time. Others believe they’ll be judged negatively for taking time off.
One assumes that Clinton also felt a strong commitment to attend a memorial for those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which took place during her time as a New York senator.
Still, Clinton had a choice. While taking a sick day may have hurt her politically, it certainly wouldn’t have been financially devastating.
Many Americans can’t afford to be ill. The U.S. is the only wealthy developed economy in the world that doesn’t mandate some form of paid sick leave. Thirty-five percent of workers aren’t paid when they take time off because they’re ill. The percentage is much higher for low-income workers and those in the service sector.
So, a lot of people are showing up sick and maybe infecting co-workers ― and sometimes customers.
Indeed, People magazine reported on Monday that several senior staffers on Clinton’s team were also sick. It’s unclear if any of them took time off, but the suggestion that illness spread among them would seem to indicate that presenteeism has infected the campaign.
Makes sense. There’s only about two months left until the election and the pressure is on. One doubts Clinton will give herself much time to relax and recover from her bout with pneumonia.
However, if elected, she may help ensure that more people can take a sick day. Clinton’s platform calls for guaranteed paid timeoff for serious medical reasons for all Americans. Donald Trump’s does not.