I have been off work for the past five days on sick leave. “I have prescribed some antibiotics for you. Please keep taking the Panadol, drink plenty of fluids, eat some food and rest, rest, REST!” These were almost the exact words from the GP last Tuesday morning. I don’t know what the scientific name for the ugly ‘chest infection’ virus I’ve contracted is but I know how it feels. Many of my symptoms are probably listed on the first website that appears in a Google search when you type in words such as ‘flu’, ‘chest’ or ‘cough’. The way these symptoms make me feel and how my own mind and body deal with them are probably not on that list.
I had the last two days of last term off work for sick leave. I had much of the Queen’s Birthday week in June off due to sick leave. Add these to a few sick days taken in Term 1. This evidence leads one to conclude that 2014 is a worse year than other years in general well being. Questions start to form, what has changed this year? What am I doing that I was not doing in 2013? Am I sleeping well? Am I exercising enough? Has my work/life balance regime changed? These questions spin involuntarily around one’s mind like a Gravitron and pick up speed more and more as the body sits or lies stationary on the couch.
My job exposes me to bugs and viruses. Some may say a teacher is more susceptible to illness due to the amount of human beings they interact with on a daily basis. Young children are still learning the ropes of how to be hygienic; covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, washing hands with soap after a toilet visit; therefore, perhaps a teacher has it tougher than other professionals to ward off the germs. But aren’t we all exposed to germs on a daily basis? Can we really say that my profession is worse off than others in this area? On a regular day, we all touch a myriad of objects and surfaces and most would admit that total vigilance is difficult to maintain when one is busy. A door knob here, a hand shake there, a table top, a coin, a bus railing…the list goes on. Either way, the truth is that we all catch germs and bugs. The further reality is that our minds and bodies all react differently to these germs. Some of us fight them off without knowing they were there. Others feel a little ‘off’ but get through after a good night’s sleep. Another group come crashing down in a messy heap (like me this week). Most of us encounter all these experiences many times over.
A leader at my school recommended a book recently. The recommendation came not because of my recent run of bad health, but because of their desire to find some answers to their own issues of ‘too much’. My copy of Tony Crabbe’s book is on its way as I write. I have little to go on at this stage save for a few extracts and reflections taken from the author’s website. But Crabbe’s writings analyse the concept of a busy society and how the regular professional has become a slave to the notion of being busy at everything. Crabbe states, “It is difficult to ask anyone ‘How are you doing?’ without hearing the word ‘busy’ at some point in the answer. All around the world I meet people who are over-whelmed; who are exhausted; who feel helpless in the face of the machine.” He goes on to state that these people are not the perennial ‘whiners’. They are the successful workers, the ones that are committed and try their best to further themselves and their organisations. I think this is me and it is most likely you.
I don’t intend to distil the information put down by Crabbe. But I could not help but equate my thinking of being busy with being sick and unwell. Some common threads of thought have recurred to me over the past 24 hours that have kept coming back during each bout of illness this year.
Why is being busy and ‘pushing through’ seen as a badge of honour these days? I can’t speak for all professions but in education, I believe it’s rife. Over the past two years, I have tried really hard to commit to always taking the appropriate amount of time to recover from an illness. Before then, I wouldn’t always do this. The ‘unspoken’ reality around me in the workplace was to push through the illness, keep on working, stick at it and only take a day if you physically could not stand. Don’t get me wrong, I was never pushed to work when unwell by my employer. Never. But I could just feel that underlying sense of ‘stiff upper lip’ from the colleagues around me. A sense that a first or second year graduate picks up very quickly when they hit the frontline.
I overheard a colleague say once, “I’ve had this terrible cold for over two months.” Really? Is this really a plausible scenario? I don’t doubt that this person had been feeling rotten for the best part of 60 days. But why do educators keep working when they are sick? It makes people miserable, unhappy and frustrated. Not to mention, the sniffles and sneezes during staff meetings whilst sitting with colleagues.
Here is another phrase I hear often, “I can’t afford to take a day off at the moment.” Certainly not because of financial concerns. Most of the time it is because the individual making the statement knows that the never ending ‘to do’ list will just get longer if they stop for a day. What kind of nasty consequence hangs over their head if they take a day to rest? I also hear some educators say that they WILL take a day to rest when sick, but will continue to work from home and get lots of those ‘other jobs’ done whilst on the couch. Again, instead of thinking about getting better, why do we believe that we can be just as productive from the couch and/or sick bed?
So within all these scenarios, I believe an underlying culture begins to build that instils ‘survival of the fittest’ mentalities in lots of schools. The one that takes on the most extra curricular jobs whilst still teaching without using much sick leave, is the winner. Consequently, there is an element of guilt or fear for those that do take sick leave for ailments such as flu, gastro etc. I have seen teachers still on contract, push themselves to the limit, seemingly walking around 24/7 with a sniffle. Regaining or retaining one’s position and contract has another criteria to meet, the ‘being on deck no matter the consequences to my well being’ section.
I’ve sat in front of nearly 30 primary students the morning after being awake all night with a raging fever. Not as a graduate but as a classroom teacher with nearly 9 years experience. I couldn’t focus properly. My hands shook a little. I was honest with the students. I told them how I felt and the symptom I had experienced the night before. They were polite and listened. But nothing changed. They were still ready for learning and intent on having their day at school just like any other. For me, the ability to instruct them to move from one section of the room to another became a task of monumental mental proportions. So who was short changed that day? Not me that’s for sure.
As the PDP process in Victorian schools evolves and more schools buy into the collegiate process of teaching and learning, will we see more educators continue to push through because they don’t want to be the one seen to be not pulling their weight because they have missed days? We encourage parents to keep students home if they are clearly unwell, no matter what they might miss in terms of learning. How often do you hear educators encourage one another to take care of themselves? Quite often, we are all in it together. But how often do we project these questions on to ourselves?
I look forward to reading Tony Crabbe’s book in depth. I no longer buy into the notion of teachers working every day, any hour during a term because, ultimately, they get their holiday reward at the end of a term. I spent the last holiday period sick. I didn’t see it as a reward but I was thankful for the opportunity to recover. But is that what those 2 weeks are really for?
Why do we keep pushing through when we are unwell? Why is being busy a badge? Why do some of us feel guilt when we take sick leave for common ailments? Why should my recovery from common illnesses be the same process as the workaholic? Most importantly, will I find myself walking into a busy environment on Monday morning apologising for the past 5 days? ‘No’, you might say. But I bet someone in this profession will be.