The New Normal -- Calling In Sick

Last Updated Oct 21, 2011 11:39 AM EDT

The New Normal Calling In SickTen years ago, if somebody claiming to be from the future had told me there would come a day when just showing up to work would be a big deal, I'd have told the guy to find a good shrink.

And yet, here we are.

What's more American than working for a living? Calling in sick, apparently. I got two emails about studies on the subject this week alone. Both are pretty remarkable and more than a little frightening:

On the heavy side - literally - a Gallup poll reported that just 1 in 7 U.S. workers are actually healthy. The rest have weight or chronic health problems that could be costing the economy $150 billion a year due to lost productivity from 450 million sick days.

On the lighter side, a CareerBuilder survey says nearly one third of U.S. workers called in sick with a fake excuse over the past year. The survey goes on to share the 15 most unusual excuses employees gave for missing work, including:

  • Bats got in her hair.
  • A refrigerator fell on him.
  • In line at a coffee shop, a truck backed up and dumped flour into her convertible.
  • Fell out of bed and broke his nose.
  • Brother-in-law was kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel.

Look, nobody likes a flake, that's for sure. You never know if and when they're going to let you down. Regardless of all the reasons for not showing up to work, meetings, whatever - legitimate or otherwise - as far as I'm concerned, if they consistently add up to people you can't count on, then they're losers.

I'd be surprised if every successful executive and business leader didn't feel the same way. Moreover, I don't believe you'll get anywhere in life, or your career, if you're not one hundred percent committed to meeting your responsibilities and getting the job done. And yes, that includes coming to work every day.

In fact, here are a few personal anecdotes that demonstrate how a strong work ethic is key to achieving great things in your career, while a lack of commitment and what I euphemistically call flexible work ethics will hold you back:

I once flew to Europe and had customer meetings in six countries in five days, all with a nasty sinus infection. It was a nightmare and, after each landing, I couldn't hear a thing until my ears popped. Look, I'm not saying you should work when you're really sick, but I'd be lying if I said that my solid and unshakeable commitment to the job wasn't a big part of my success. That said, it helps if you're strong and healthy enough to handle it. I think youth helps too.

The partying at big industry trade shows in Las Vegas and elsewhere can be a little wild, as most of us know. But, as the head of marketing, I always used to tell people, "Party all night long if you want, but you'd damn well better show up for your morning meetings, presentations, or booth duty." I always did, even with the worst hangovers you can imagine. I got the job done no matter what.

I once had a technical marketing person, let's call her Lisa. Lisa wanted to participate in a high-profile industry trade show in Las Vegas - the biggest annual event for our company. We trained her to be part of the booth presentation. After the first day, she was a no-show, leaving us in a lurch. Said she was sick, but was seen partying at night. Three months later, we gave her another shot, this time in Hanover, Germany. Same result. That was 16 years ago. Lisa never amounted to anything.

Twelve years ago, one of my directors hired a sharp young marketing manager. After a few months, his wife had a baby and we gave him more than the required two weeks off for paternity leave. After four weeks, he asked for another four weeks. We granted it. After that, he left the company. That little act of stringing us along burdened everyone else in my group. And, like Lisa, that guy's career never went anywhere. No kidding.

Last word. Just to be clear, I don't mean to minimize the ever-growing health issues with obesity and chronic illness in this country. I'm particularly sensitive to those who have to work while managing pain, as I've written before. But a lot of people game the system, thinking they're getting away with something. Sure, it hurts their company, but the truth is, it hurts them more.

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