We Need to Be the Change We Wish to See

Dec 17, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by

Lori Melichar, director Lori Melichar, director

Those of us working to achieve a Culture of Health in this country need to practice the healthy habits we preach.

In Danielle Ofri’s recent New York Times op-ed, Why Doctors Don’t Take Sick Days, she describes a problem that’s persisted for ages, but that no one has created systems to solve: doctors refusing to call in sick. “From day one in medical training,” she writes, “the unspoken message is that calling in sick is for wimps.”

Her message hit home. Despite working for the country’s largest health foundation, I’m also guilty of coming to work sick, and of sending my kids to daycare sick, on days when I feel it would be disruptive to reschedule a day’s worth of meetings. 

Like many (but sadly, not all) working parents, my employer allocates me a reasonable number of sick days, so I don't have to sacrifice income to stay in bed for a day. So on mornings when I’m not feeling well, the factors that flash through my head relate to the work my grantees and colleagues are counting on me to do. At RWJF, we take meetings seriously. If someone is involved in a meeting, it's because her input is essential to produce the best outcome. If a meeting of even two busy people has to be rescheduled, the delay could be costly in terms of productivity.

For many of the meetings I attend, the goal is to identify intractable problems in health and health care and invest in disruptive solutions to those problems. Let’s focus that lens on the challenge of getting sick workers to stay away from their well colleagues, and brainstorm how we can make the right choice the easy choice (or at least make the wrong choice the hard choice).  What if we could join meetings by hologram? What if my employer installed a breathalyzer (or a microbiome sensor) at the entrance to my office building that refused entry to the contagious?

Could high tech innovations like these get more people to work from home when sick? Sure, but as we tell potential applicants, the high-tech solution isn’t always the one that will shift the paradigm. After all, if I’m sick, even the hologram version of me shouldn’t be in a meeting; I should be resting or allowing my child to rest, in order to get well.

We need a way to change the norm Ofri describes. So how do we do that? My colleague Jody Struve suggested in a blog post this summer that our health choices have a ripple effect on those around us. She proposed we begin thanking people for their good health habits. Perhaps something that simple is just the disruption the workplace culture needs.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.