This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges people face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.
“She was so dedicated to getting us over the finish line.”
We all sat, captivated, as the director spoke between hurried mouthfuls during our overdue lunch break.
“She pushed through a nasty bout of gastro and just threw up in a bucket between takes. Talk about ‘work ethic’.”
The manager who was telling this story was known as ‘one of the greats’. The most distinguished director I’d worked with to date, and this, in his opinion, was what it took to be considered a hard-working actor. A real team player. That’s not admirable, I thought to myself, that’s a result of reckless leadership.
The thing is, before our world was upended by covid-19, his was not a unique outlook. As an actor, on winter film shoots, I’d notice half of the crew stifling their coughs during takes, only to let loose in a cacophony, so to speak, as soon as the director shouted “cut”. While working in the fitness industry, I was constantly pressured to come into my shift at the gym while sick. If you could walk, you could work – that’s just how it was. And despite the lessons of the pandemic, I am startled by evidence all around me that the dreaded soldier-on attitude is already creeping back into vogue.
Workplaces that tolerate – or worse, urge – staff to work while unwell and contagious are not safe spaces. Not for anyone, but especially not for those of us with chronic illness.
For people like me, a cold is not just a cold, and catching one from a colleague can mean a major setback. If it’s something worse, it can mean hospitalisation.
My daily baseline is three alarms that help me manage my health. During a recent flare up, I had nine different alarms going off from the moment I woke up to the time I went to bed. Each prompted me to take a blood pressure reading or a dose of medication. Each a poorly timed hand reaching out to pull me out of the realm of the well. With these constant reminders, it’s a miracle that I could forget for any length of time. But if I do, I’m brought screaming back to reality by the woman at the gym, advising her friend to “get COVID now so you’ll be good for Bali”. Or the friend of a friend explaining that they’re just going to go into work while Covid positive, because they “hardly have any symptoms”, and they’re “on a deadline”.
It’s a uniquely isolating experience, for those of us living in a body that by all external metrics appears to be functioning optimally, while inside it’s tearing itself to pieces. Often, we present better than we are, because if we don’t maintain a performance of stability, a very real fear is that we’ll lose the work we are lucky enough to have.
And in part, the challenge for leaders is that a lot of people with invisible illnesses work really hard to keep them that way. When staying alive is a part time job, you reach for anything that will ground you into a sense of normality, illusionary as it may be.
So what helps?
Some of the things that were normalised during the pandemic – like ventilated meeting spaces, organising social catch ups at outdoor venues, establishing flexible work from home options, etc, are things that enable people to be productive outside of the workplace. And perhaps most importantly for leaders: try talking openly about the issue along with the potential impacts, and explicitly model the behaviours you’re seeking to entrench.
If you as a leader are sick with something that could make others sick, stay out of the workplace, and tell people why you’re doing so.
Taken together, these things can make for a safer, more inclusive and a more productive work environment for those of us who lost the genetic lottery.
A lot of this comes down to creating an environment where staff can express their needs openly and without fearing backlash for their candour. I recently shared with a higher-up that I was working with some limitations, and to my surprise, I was met with warmth and compassion. “Of course” she said casually. “You just tell me if you need a break”. My fists unclenched as the breath I’d been holding onto politely let itself out. This is what it takes.
Those of us with a chronic illness often do present better than we are. And this is a blessing and a curse. We don’t expect those around us to understand that for us, it’s not “just a cold”. But in the workplace, we desperately need leaders who do.
Hannah Vanderheide is a writer, actor, and voice artist with a beautiful little toddler to keep her on her toes. You may have spotted her recent work in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, or on Mamamia where she covers everything from chronic illness to body image and parenting. As an actor, she has worked on Neighbours, Winners & Losers and starred in Amazon Prime series Counter Play.
Hannah is also a body-neutral trainer, eating disorder survivor, and wellness industry sceptic who loves to write about the sensible side of health.
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