Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Making People Ill: Part 1, Being Ill Yourself

The current technology management environment is kind of flummoxed about what to do with sick people. If you work in technology and health care, its a little more clear cut, but no less confusing on the actual, you know, sick days side of the equation.

As an employee, what do you do when you're sick? As a manager, what do you preach when members of your team are ill? As a company, what is your policy on employees who are sick? Today we're going to talk about the typical options and what you can do when you're an employee. Future blogs will cover what the manager is expected to do (both as an employee and a manager) and some tips about how to handle company policy on illness.

Today, though, we start with tracing out the problem: how is time off for illness being handled across most of the technology management environment?

If you are lucky enough to have a job with benefits (I am currently that lucky) and those benefits include sick days (I am not that lucky), typically you get them in one of two forms: 1) specifically designated sick days, and usually not a ton of them; most companies do 5 formal sick days or 2) Paid Time Off, which is a pool of sick days and vacation days.

Both policies kind of suck, which, if you have them, you know why. First, let's look at the limited sick day plan. If you are very lucky you might get more than 5 days, but I haven't actually been anywhere that's been the case. I have caught flus every 3-4 years that eat up five days at a time. There is nothing different in those years that prevents me from getting ill other than that 5 day stretch, but since I don't have sick days, what do I do on the sixth day I'm so sick that I can't come into the office?

Alternately, PTO, if you're lucky, is 15 days to spend on being sick or taking vacation time. It's the same pool. So, if you have a horrible headache, fever and cough, do you burn a day you could be spending healthy with your family in Disneyland, or do you go into the office and infect everyone else?

I don't have children. Look at people who do. There is a family leave act in place in most states and there is a national law. Basically, if your mother, father, husband, children, brothers, sisters, or in some very rare cases, extended family get very sick--like cancer kind of sick--you can legally take time off to help them/be with them. Many places have paternity/maternity rules in place so you can have some time off after a baby is born, or after your spouse goes back to work so you have flexible time to be with the baby. Neither of these particularly helps you when the baby gets YOU sick (or if the rest of the family does). On the bright side, that's not how things like cancer work. On the downside, as children gain immunities and encounter strangers (other kids in daycare for example), THEY CATCH EVERYTHING. Everything. Their little immune systems are the engines that could--they're down for a day, two, maybe three at the most and then their running and screaming and getting infected (or infecting others) with something new.

Adult immune systems rock, but cannot keep up with the traffic coming with and out of the little ones. You may be able to use either of those options as needed for long term illness or during the time of the paternity/maternity leave to help take care of the kids when they are sick, but things start getting iffy when the kids are getting you sick. A parent with a child freshly in daycare is going to blow through 5 sick days in the blink of an eye. And just how much of their family vacations do they want to give away by staying home sick when they're sick once or twice a month for a year or two while their kids immune systems spool up?

What if work requires you to be in places where your immune system has to work hard? People who travel a lot--locked inside metal tubes with tons of other people who have varying ideas of what hygiene is and are all breathing shared, recycled air--either get hearty immune systems or they get sick more than their fellow employees (or some combo of both).

Then, there are folks who have actual medical issues; people with compromised immune systems or ongoing conditions that cause them to have to take additional sick days or who get sick more often than others. In a lot of cases they can apply for accommodation, but it still often means they may end up eating their sick days, vacation days, etc.

Now that we've reviewed how lame the policies for time off are, how do we answer the question:As an employee, what do you do when you're sick?

As an employee, without being a manager, you're just as screwed as anyone else with the 5 days or the PTO thing, but you are not substantially more screwed, which is nice. Companies often have policies but don't communicate them (or did that one time when you were first hired) or don't enforce them around sick time. Very often, the company doesn't have a policy beyond "you get this many days to decide what to do if you don't feel well."

This means when you're sick, you make the call about how sick is too sick to come into the office; as an individual, if I can drive AND I haven't had a fever in 12 hours, I go to the office. This exposes my co-workers to any germs that may still be coming out of me--there are lots of articles on the fact that after a fever leaves you aren't contagious and just as many that say that you are until you stop "shedding" virus/bacteria, and by "shedding" they mean all the gross stuff trying to claw its way out of your lungs, throat and/or sinuses. As an individual, however--unless I'm in a medical firm or medical profession where I can literally endanger others who compromised systems and am aware of that fact--I can make the decision to come in contagious if there is no set company policy, or if there is a policy and it's not enforced.

If you're thinking this means the 5 days off or PTO policies suck even more because it drives people into the office where they can spread the illness and get even more people sick, you are correct. However, as an individual with no policy or direction from company or manager, you get to make the call--eat up one of those 5 precious days when you might be much sicker later, or go into work now propped up on cold medicine and caffeine?

Whenever I take a position I always ask about working from home as an option. It's not always an available option, but if it's possible, I ask about it, especially around times I might be ill. Some companies cut you off--if you're too sick to come in, you can't work from home. Most companies that allow work from home will allow you to work when you're home ill, provided you don't abuse the privilege (this might be a good time to take a look at my blog post on perception with your bosses, especially when working remotely).

Whenever possible, I try to take this option. In this way I can continue to meet deadlines, email doesn't pile up, and I can work as much or as little as I can stand--as long as I report what I'm doing and when. This doesn't give you carte blanche to take a nap and then act as if you've worked those hours, but it is acceptable to let your boss know you're offline and when you're back online and either make those hours up (more on that later) or take hours out of sick leave or PTO (rather than entire days).

I like to talk to bosses about comp time, as well--this is time that is "comped" back to you. Some companies are formal about it, other companies prohibit it, and some companies don't want to know about it, but are okay with you doing it (seriously) as long as it's not written down and no one tries to push being paid for comped time. For example, during crunch month you might work later nights, longer weeks, even on the weekend; this might mean that your boss "comps" you time after crunch time is over. If you worked Saturday, you might get the Wednesday after launch off if you like. It can also mean that if you regularly work more than 40 hours a week, your boss may not care if you have to take two hours to nap in the middle of the day, and nothing comes out of PTO or sick time. In some cases, bosses may always not take time out of your sick leave or PTO for a day or two illness if you "make up" that time later, or if you've "banked" that time by working overtime before.

You can NEVER count on comp time. Let me repeat that: YOU CAN NEVER COUNT ON COMP TIME. Even if your company has a formal policy on it, they rarely track it. It is an agreement between you and your boss, and you need to be absolutely clear with your boss about banking and making up hours. If the boss is crazy, forgetful, or say switches out between when you banked the time and when you need to use it, it can vanish. Comp time is lovely, but don't depend on it.

Finally, you are now in the realm, as an individual, of "what the company will allow" if you need time off. Say you've used your sick days. Some companies may make you use your vacation days if you need to stay home after that. Some companies only give sick or vacation days on an accrual basis, which means that in addition to burning that time you could be on the beach soaking in the sun on vacation, you're actually going into debt on days you could be on the beach until you're health recovers and enough time passes. Some companies allow you to take time off without pay (though they often force you to use all your sick and vacation days first). It varies company to company.

The gist is, when you take a job, know your options. If you have one and don't know them, don't go directly to HR, go to your boss and ask. Obviously if you have an illness in the family or are expecting a child from childbirth, surrogacy or adoption (or alien landing from the moon, changeling, or anything legally acceptable for this category), talk to HR and use the available options. But always start with your boss--what her/his views are on time on and off, working from home, comp time, etc. It can help to know how to spend your sick days or your PTO days, but also how NOT to spend them.

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