6 Lessons Learned from Rumbling with the Flu and Work Obligations

The flu knocked me out cold last week.  Then it knocked my kids out. Trying to take care of two people that have the flu while you have the flu just doesn’t work well.  After trying to take care of one of them on his first day down, the other one started running a fever. I felt worse than I had if that was even possible and I looked at my husband and said, “You have to stay home from work tomorrow. I need help.”

My husband hasn’t missed a day of work in over twelve years due to illness.  His illness or anyone else’s. We could retire now on what he has built up in his sick leave bank if we could actually cash it in and it wasn’t now all rolled into a comprehensive time off bank.

His response was to proceed to tell me everything that was on his calendar at work the next day. In other words, he was telling me he couldn’t miss work.

I was not happy. “Reschedule things or send someone else in your place,” I said and went to lay back down.

I had already postponed a dozen things from the previous two days due to the flu. Everyone was understanding.  I knew the people my husband works with would be understanding too.

As a matter of fact, he was not feeling well either. He had texted me earlier saying he was sitting in his office with his fleece on and still freezing along with “I can’t quit coughing.”  That day, a colleague told him he didn’t look good and sent him to the employee health clinic to get his temperature taken. He had a low-grade fever but told her “that isn’t really fever” and went to his next meeting.  Where I imagine everyone sat on the opposite side of the room from him.

So why was he upset about staying a home? And why was he so adamant about pushing through not feeling good himself to go to work?  I knew it wasn’t because he didn’t think he should or didn’t want to help out. He has always helped out at home.

When I finally asked why he so adamant about going to work (in a text message to him because I was so fuming mad about his reaction), he said, “I just hate it when I have obligations and I don’t fulfill them.”

My husband’s sense of obligation towards work isn’t isolated to him.  In fact, a survey by NSF International cited at least 26 percent of US workers admitting to going to work sick, with men twice as likely to show up at the office when ill than females.  One Forbes article cited as high as fifty-five percent of American workers going to work when sick.  And showed this infographic breaking it down:


And If I was capable of a coherent thought during this time, I would have probably sympathized with my husband, also feeling guilt over missing so many work-related meetings and deadlines.

Nevertheless, he stayed home the next day and we were all able to rest.  But what I’ve learned (and maybe he has too) from a week* of flu hell is this:

  1. No one really cares if you miss work for a day or a week.  In fact, they want you to because 1) they don’t want to catch what you have and 2) they most often genuinely care about your wellbeing.
  2. Speaking of wellbeing, people want to help when you’re sick.  Let them bring you soup, cover the meeting for you, and or drop off play dough for your kids to play with and a bottle of wine for you when you are feeling better. (Yes, soup, play dough and wine, among other things, were left on our porch by sweet friends during this time.)
  3. In general, we put more pressure on ourselves to perform and show up than anyone else does.  You can’t get better if you’re sick worrying about what you may be missing or not getting done.  Rest and then catch up. I was surprised at how much I was able to catch up on in less than a day of work.  My schedule the next week will be jammed with rescheduled meetings, but it will get done.*
  4. And some things don’t actually need to get done.  Being sick helps you eliminate that on your to-do list that you really don’t need to do.  Pretend you are going to have the flu for a week and then decide what you really need to get done and/or attend.
  5. Also, being sick helps you realize that some meetings are really completely unnecessary and/or your involvement in them is.  One meeting I had to miss had three of us from Horizon Point scheduled to attend. It was totally inefficient for all of us to be there. I suspect one of the meetings my husband had to miss that he was most worried about had his boss and three other colleagues of his in attendance. Geez. In the case of my meeting, my two colleagues went and moved things along better than if I had been present.  Getting out of the way sometimes is helpful. Don’t let it take getting the flu to realize that.

How do you react to work obligations when you’re sick?  

*So, after writing this thinking I was feeling better, my one week of flu hell turned into two weeks of flu hell with three days spent in the hospital.   Take my advice (that I didn’t take) in number three and seriously rest. I pushed too hard when I was feeling better and it caused a relapse that involved uncontrollable vomiting leading to dehydration, low blood pressure and low potassium levels.   Amidst all of this, my husband was a saint and he didn’t even have to miss that much work because his office was down the elevator and around the hall from my hospital room. ☺

Mary Ila Ward

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