From a December 29 op-ed in the New York Times by Daniel Engber:
…If overwork can be taken as a sickness in itself, then America is a bastion of infirmity. We clock in some 1,788 hours a year, 120 more than our counterparts in Britain, 300 more than our counterparts in France and 400 more than our counterparts in Germany. (Workaholism is most acute among people with at least a college education — i.e., the office type.) America, notoriously, does not require employers to offer paid sick leave. Employers grant new employees just eight sick days, on average, down 20 percent since 1993, and that’s only what we have on paper.
Americans have always had a tendency to work strange hours, late at night or over weekends, notes Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin. He thinks the pattern arises from our heavy-handed office culture: If you’re not overworked — or won’t go into the office sick — you seem to be a slouch. “We’ve gotten to a point where no one wants to depart from the presenteeism, but we’re all worse off because of it,” he told me. “It’s a Gordian knot.”
In other words, the American workplace has gotten tangled up in endless searches for a dose of extra credit. Since we’re all in competition — if I slow down, you get ahead — no one has an incentive to untie the knot. When we see a colleague with a runny nose, it only makes that conflict more explicit. We act as if we’re worried for his health, or troubled that his work-life balance might be out of whack, but in truth we’re just as driven by the mania for overwork. We’d prefer for him to take his sick days now only so that we won’t have to, down the line.
The problem is, putting pressure on the presentee only serves to fortify the status quo. It treats illness as a threat to productivity rather than a source of suffering. Let’s try to have a bit more empathy. Instead of raging at officemates who try too hard, praise the ones who do their part to slow the rat race down. Support the slacker — or better yet, be a slacker. Take some extra time. Stay home. That’s how we can show that it’s O.K. to take it easy, and that a happy, healthy life needn’t be a source of shame.