The Trouble With Illness

So, I am sitting here feeling utterly miserable (and perhaps a tad sorry for myself). My nose is running, my sinuses are throbbing and I feel like I have been hit by a Mack truck. Of course, my kids feel fine. And that is the trouble with illness.
It is a little bit of a tangent from my normal postings, but illness is a relevant topic when discussing parenthood and work relations in this country.
You hear in various studies and news reports (the most recently being the 20/20 HR Rep’s True Confessions) about how employers want to go out of their way to try and avoid hiring parents of young children. The supposition is that they will need extra time off to take care of the children when they are ill, and apparently it is assumed that all young children are ill A LOT.

Now, while it may be true that children are exposed to more at school, it may not be true that they are sick more often. The problem lies in how long it takes a single cold to go through a family.

For the purpose of this blog I am going to give my three little munchkins pseudonyms. My oldest daughter, let’s call her Snowflake, graduated from kindergarten this past Friday. To ensure that the ceremony was uninterrupted we were encouraged to leave little ones with the PTA sponsored child care, which sounded good to me. Now, my baby boy is 7 months (let’s call him Starman) is at that stage where he want to move all the time, so child care was a great choice.
Then Sunday night came and I realized that Starman had caught a cold. I did a quick incubation calculation and immediately realized he must have caught it at the elementary school. Starman was sick Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. My husband caught it Monday night. He got sent home from work on Wednesday because no one wanted him around (can’t blame them, but we needed the money…I will get back to that point in a minute). My middle child, a four-year-old daughter (let’s call her Raindrop) came down with the sniffles on Tuesday night. Last night, thinking I may have dodged the bullet along with Snowflake, realized that I wasn’t feeling very well. By the middle of the night last night I realized I was sick. Really sick. And that got my mind working. As colds go, it has been fairly short lived, but it will have taken this small cold a week to work its way through our family. No wonder people get excited about families with young children and illness. Depending on how many children a family has and how virulent the illness is, it can cause families to miss fairly large chunks of time.

Now, before you get worried that I am arguing against my own employability, I am not. With a large enough social network (ie: social capital), time off can be mitigated. However, I believe there is a better solution. Not just better for families, but better for ALL American workers. The answer: more sick time. You see, the American worker works more hours per day, week and year than almost any other worker in the world. We have less sick time and less vacation time as well. By providing more sick time, we would actually get sick less. If people stayed home when they were sick, others wouldn’t be exposed. We could reduce the incidents of illness. We could also provide more support for those with serious illness. My husband and I have gone to work many times when we knew we shouldn’t just because we knew we couldn’t afford to stay home. And how many stories have I heard in my work in children’s ministry of serious illnesses contracted by children in child care because parents can’t afford to miss work and take their kids to child care sick.

Would this cost companies more? Possibly, but, they might spend less on healthcare costs. They might spend less on lost productivity. And it would make America healthier as a whole. A great resource to explore those ideas was written by Joan Williams in 2000 called Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About it. I was excited by some of her ideas back then and felt some were very promising, and it makes me sad that there has been little to no headway made on most of the issues she addressed in the last decade.

It is a fascinating book and has shaped a lot of my current theories and in my opinion definitely worth reading: