September 14th, 2020

Could COVID-19 end the workplace culture of ‘soldiering on’?

We are all guilty of soldiering on. Who hasn’t ever woken up with a sore throat, but still jumped on public transport to go to work? The office is a place full of people and surfaces that can be touched. This would be unacceptable in the time of COVID-19.

There are a number of reasons behind this ‘cavalier’ behaviour. The anxiety of having to catch up with work the next day. A person thinking they are not ill enough to justify a sickie. One could simply not be in a position where taking a day off is possible. When someone used hand sanitiser before the pandemic, it would seem snobbish and hypochondriac. Now, many are carrying it on their person to run their errands.

A YouGov poll which was conducted last year found two-thirds of the 1,000 Australians who participated have attended work despite illness. It would be interesting to repeat this poll today. It is likely that social distancing measures and better understanding of infections spread have changed behaviours.

A 2020 study involving Australian researchers with a cohort of more than 500 people from 49 countries found that almost all have been to work with minor flu symptoms. Of the 500 participants, 249 were healthcare workers, and more than half of them admitted to going to work with an influenza-like illness.

The pandemic has educated the public on how infections spread, and how a day at the office whilst sick could be an unfortunate and selfish act. People are consuming public health en masse in a way never seen before.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, warned against soldiering on in a press conference on 6th May 2020.

“[…] people coming to work when they’re sick put others at risk, and we really, all of us, need to take that new way of thinking about going to work, not soldiering on when you have symptoms that might be COVID-19. It’s absolutely crucial in terms of protecting your work colleagues and the wider community as we go forward in this COVID-safe way. […]

Professor Kelly speaks of a ‘new way of thinking about going to work’. COVID-19 has changed the way we work forever. New questions to our work life abound: will we be going back to an office environment five days a week? How will we commute? Will we ultimately return to ‘soldiering on’?

Read our article about Australia’s forgotten flu season.

Technology has made the working from home culture possible. Who knows how we would have handled this crisis only thirty years ago! A report conducted by a productivity consultancy found that of the 423 Australian office workers surveyed, 45% of respondents think they are more productive working remotely. Overall, 51% of respondents said they preferred remote working, as compared to 23% who prefer working in the office.

This result for working from home, combined with better public health awareness, could result in a forever changed work ethic. It is important to remember that some simply cannot avoid heading into work for personal and socio-economic reasons, and every situation is different. The working world might be a more flexible place. Who knows?

A silver lining of this pandemic is that the improved awareness of public health could contribute to people being healthier.

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