A few weeks ago, a senior manager complained to me that her younger employees take sick leave when they aren’t feeling well. She recounted that in her day, people would never dream of calling in sick unless they were seriously ill.
And, don’t even talk to her about mental health days.
She acknowledged that her team backs each other up and is productive despite taking leave. What bothered her was their unwillingness to “sacrifice” like in the old days when employees would push through and tough it out even if there was little impact on productivity.
Her opinion got me thinking about the culture of sacrifice in many workplaces. Too many leaders, like this senior manager, appear to value sacrifice over effectiveness. This focus on sacrifice, however, risks undermining their ability to achieve work goals.
How do we decide when to sacrifice and when to draw the line?
During my career as a U.S. diplomat, I made hundreds of sacrifices large and small. I risked my life in Iraq but am comfortable with that decision because I was keeping American citizens safe. I worked many weekends uncompensated and was woken in the middle of the night hundreds of times. I believed these sacrifices were warranted because they had a direct impact on vital foreign policy goals.
But other sacrifices were silly. When I worked as a control officer for a VIP visit a day after being released from the hospital, I jeopardized my health when another embassy employee could have taken my place. The sacrifice I most regret was when I didn’t return to the United States when my dad had open-heart surgery because I’d just arrived in a new job and didn’t want to upset my boss by asking for leave. If my dad had not survived this risky surgery, I would never have forgiven myself.
I realized that I made many sacrifices simply because the culture (no one individual) pressured me to do so. I often didn’t achieve anything monumental, and at times my productivity suffered. Seriously, was I an effective control officer the day after being released from the hospital?
I learned to think about the sacrifices I feel compelled to make and then make a conscious decision about whether the sacrifice is worth it. I ask myself whether I would make the sacrifice for the right reason. I try to resist the cultural pressure to sacrifice as a way of demonstrating commitment or proving I can do something hard, but instead limit sacrifices to those that make a real difference.
And, if I don’t feel well or need a mental health day, I take sick leave.