Week 8: why do we do this to ourselves?

I was felled by some kind of bug last week. There’s been a flu of some sort going around campus lately, many of my colleagues succumbed.

I managed not to get a full-on set of respiratory symptoms, but on Tuesday morning, after my walk with my walking buddy, and while I was sitting in on a media interview with my boss, I suddenly felt like a train wreck. I could barely keep my head up. When I got back to my office, my staff said I was looking as bad as I felt, and sent me home. I collapsed into bed and slept for four hours, woke up for two, and collapsed back to sleep again for the rest of the night.I dragged myself in the next day feeling slightly better. Less train wreck, more limp dishrag. The smart thing to do would have been to stay in bed another day.

Trouble is, I was working on some files that I felt I could not delegate, defer, or cancel. Truth is, at least one of those files I could have delegated. One of them I did defer. One I simply could not delegate or defer because we were preparing for the board of governors meeting on Thursday. But still, there really was no need for me to drag my illness through campus most of that day. I was very thankful to be feeling better by Thursday, and able to show up at the Board meeting alert and unmedicated (those daytime cold meds never really work for me anyway).

Why do we do this to ourselves? (I say “we” because I wasn’t the only walking wounded last week.) I have a few ideas:

  • We’re committed and invested; we really, truly care about the University, we bring our best selves to work on all our projects.
  • We don’t have the staff to delegate to; I am down three people in my department, and I know the more I delegate to my managers, the more they in turn will be working overtime to deliver on projects as well as do the heavy lifting in hiring for the vacant positions. My other admin colleagues are in the same boat. One Executive Director doesn’t have an executive assistant, and I do, so I felt like a whiner next to him.
  • Some things just can’t be delegated, because of their strategic importance or because of confidentiality, safety, or security concerns.

When we take a step back and look at all the above from a strategic viewpoint, here is what we are left with: we had many administrators showing up to work sick in the last two weeks who felt for many valid reasons they could not stay home and get better. However, if we had stayed home, and phoned in to some crucial meetings, would we have had as many people down for the count (viruses love a party after all)? Would the sky fall in? 

Probably not.

I felt like my presence was too important not to show up to work, when in fact it probably contributed to the problem by spreading whatever bug was going around. I always tell my staff to take care of themselves first, so that they can show up at work when they’re healthy and able to give their best. It’s time I took my own advice. 

Indications are chronic overwork and burnout among administrative and other employees happens not just in post-secondary institutions, not just in the public sector, but in every sector, in every industry. I suspect if more of us took better care of ourselves, we would probably all end up better for it in the long run. 

Do you agree or disagree? Do you take the time you need to stay healthy, or get better when you’re sick?