I am listening to the Chancellor’s response to the Corona Virus, Corvid 19. I won’t pass judgement as yet as it will take me a while to process and understand what is on offer. This outbreak is bringing the faults in our economy and society into sharp relief. It is also a useful exemplar to help us understand how anxiety works – how some of us live our lives in a state of fear.
I am self employed. I choose to be self employed, despite the lack of benefits I used to enjoy when working for someone else, such as sick pay, training, annual leave etc. It presents me with challenges. My work is irregular. I can have some months with a booking every week, and then I can go for months with nothing. January February was one such period. I have eaten through my savings, which had already been depleted by a similar hungry gap in summer. Then my washing machine died (of course, they always seem to know the worst time to go). So I need the next couple of months, I have plenty of bookings, and if it all goes ahead, I am ok. I can pay the rent and replenish my savings a little. But then comes this virus. The possibility of having to self isolate if I or my partner get ill. Or of a shut down making it impossible for me to travel to my bookings across the country. I am scared.
I am not alone in this fear. So many people are in dire straits after a lean winter. After floods, and poor weather, and low visitor numbers. We need a good Spring and Summer to make it through. But there are plenty of people whose incomes are not so erratic who also fear sickness like this. Who fear it every day – not just Corona Virus – any sickness. Because their employers do not pay decent sick pay (Statutory may be better than nothing but if it is not equal to a decent percentage of your usual wage it will not pay your bills and ease your concerns). Because they will lose bonuses based on 100% attendance. Because they risk discipline or losing their jobs if they have more than a few days sick a year. Because they are not paid enough in the first place to be able to save decent cushion to help them through crisis points like this.
Even robots break down. We are not robots. We get sick. Some of us more than others. Stress (such as the above concerns, not to mention workload, interpersonal issues, other financial concerns, family problem) affects our immune response and makes it more likely that we will get ill, that it will be harder to recover. Simply telling people not to get ill doesn’t stop it happening, it just makes it harder for people to do what they need to do to get well.
Presenteeism (that’s people going into work when they are not well enough) has twice as big an impact on the economy as absenteeism (taking time off sick). Corvid 19 is showing us one reason why – making us think about the spread of disease. This is a particularly nasty illness, but it spreads just like the flu, like colds, like stomach bugs. If we go into work when we are contagious, and are not wearing Haz-Mat suits, we infect those around us. We do not perform at our best. We make mistakes. Sometimes if our mood and demeanour is affected by our illness, this can also spread, discontent, poor morale, deteriorating relationships. It’s no good for anyone.
We need a different approach. We need to encourage wellness, but not punish sickness. No one wants to get sick. Good health and wellbeing programmes to help people have the best chance of staying well, but also good protections and compassion for those who become unwell. Occupational Health, Employee Assistance Programmes, even Private Medical Care to take the load off the NHS. Give flexible and home working options where possible – sometimes you might be well enough to work but still infectious, or well enough to do a few hours if you can nap between. Don’t make it something people need to beg for. Make it an easy choice. People assume working from home means skiving. But the evidence suggests the opposite, that you get increased discretionary effort, that people are less distracted, more focused, and are able to get straight on to things instead of having an hour or more commuting before they even think about work. Granted, they might be in pyjamas sometimes, but what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.
Not everyone can work from home, I get it. But think creatively. How can you diversify your workforce’s jobs – give them variety – so there are options. Invest in technologies where you can which will make life easier. One of the biggest problems we have – across the board, is that everything has been pared down to the barest essentials. We need redundancy in our systems. We need more people, so we can cover each other if we get ill. We need spare beds in the health system. We need a few more pounds in the pay packet so we can put something aside to cope with rainy days.
We have got used to convenience. To paying peanuts. To complaining about the cost of food and services. The knock on effects are clear to see in this crisis. The break down of the supply chain, the fear that an already overstretched NHS will not be able to cope with the potential impact, and that people will die. The impact that isolation will have on businesses across the land who rely on people being able to go out and spend money.
It’s not an easy thing to fix. We need bold choices. We need people to have more money in their pockets, to be able to afford, and prepared to pay more for the things they need, so people can charge the prices they need to charge to reflect the cost of a product or service, factoring in decent pay rates, sickness pay, and extra capacity in the system to ensure we can escape an economy based on fear and scarcity and precarity. An economy which is making us ill, and which cannot cope.