Jayne Dowle: Rest of the office won’t be sniffy if you call in sick

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THE most annoying television commercial has got to be the one with those wretched women struggling on in spite of the flu. I want to scream at them to go home and stop playing the martyr.

It’s bad enough that they indulge in competitive multi-tasking. That they do it while blowing into their hankies, spraying germs everywhere, makes me sick.

I know it’s only an advert, but this is a scene played out at every bus stop and around every office water cooler in the country.

We British have a totally contradictory attitude towards our health. On the one hand, we’re obsessed with every new fad that comes along, convinced that the latest thing will miraculously make us fit or thin or both. We jump on the internet at the first sign of a twinge or a dizzy spell, convinced it must be the onset of a major disease. We beg for an appointment with our GP, then moan that our dodgy knee/bad back/funny headaches are not being taken seriously.

And then, as soon as we find ourselves pole-axed by the flu or food poisoning, we insist on going to work. How mad is that? I agree with Frances Osborne. The Chancellor’s wife thinks that sick people should stay at home and not drag themselves into the office or attend social occasions.

You might well ask what qualifies a woman who sits at home writing books all day – Mrs Osborne has several best-selling novels to her name – to declaim on the British attitude to illness in public. And you would have a point. Being semi-self-employed myself, I take to my bed immediately a virus strikes. This might sound terribly self-indulgent, but four decades of experience has taught me that if I carry on until I drop, it will take me twice as long to recover. And, as nobody pays a self-employed person for not working, the onus is on me to look after myself.

It is why I’ve perfected the art of working on my laptop propped up by pillows, surrounded by pharmaceuticals and telephones. The effect is more Red Riding Hood’s grandmother than Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, but a day or so like this usually sorts me out.

I know. I have it relatively easy. I don’t have to deal with a demanding boss expecting me to physically show up and suffer for eight hours every day. According to the CBI, sickness costs the economy £14bn in lost working days. It’s a big number, isn’t it? Don’t let it scare you though.

Far be it from me to encourage the shirkers and the malingerers, but if you’re ill, you’re ill. You’re no use to anyone coughing and sneezing all over the place. And as Mrs Osborne helpfully reminds us, germs are contagious.

It’s irresponsible to think that your cog in the wheel is so vital it doesn’t matter if you bring everyone else down with you. It might be stoic, but it’s also selfish. Nobody is that important. If the Queen has a sniffle, she sends her apologies and someone else cuts the ribbon or makes the speech.

In all my working life, I’ve never seen anyone awarded a medal for turning up at work with a streaming cold. You may think it puts you in line for colleague-of-the-year, but no-one will love you for it. In fact, it is highly likely that your co-workers will actually hate you. Not only do they run the risk of catching whatever it is you’ve got, they also think you’re being a creep. When they feel ill, they will feel wracked with guilt if they don’t force themselves out of the house too. And when you are slumped there regaling them with a blow-by-blow account of your suffering, they will want to slam your head in the photocopier in despair.

I guarantee that the ones who make the most fuss about soldiering on will be the same ones who bring lunchtime sandwiches without butter because it’s bad for their cholesterol. I’m all for instilling a strong work ethic.

However, those who think the company will close down overnight if they are not there should get some perspective. And meanwhile, those in charge would do well to find a little more sympathy and compassion. What kind of workplace are you running if everyone is too terrified to admit to feeling a bit rough from time to time?

Of course, there will always be individuals prepared to test an employer’s patience. That’s why there have to be rules. And I know we have to pull together in tough economic times and all that.

However, I don’t understand why certain organisations, including local councils and large retailers, automatically dock their workers’ pay if they so much as take a single day off ill. It is nothing short of bullying. No wonder the CBI finds the major cause of sickness absence is not flu or food poisoning, but mental health.

Anxiety, stress and depression cause more lost working days than anything else. And that really is enough to make anyone sick.