The pressure of being sick

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Like many people, I procrastinated and forgot to my flu shot (that’s inexcusable. Get vaccinated!) and now I’m paying the price, with muscle aches, headaches, a bad cough and a nose that reminds me of Bonneville Dam.

But despite all of it, it could be worse. I could be working in TV news with the flu.

One of the most common expressions in TV news is “news doesn’t wait.” It means whatever day it is, whatever time it is, whatever reporter is on the clock, the news has to be covered.

And the unwritten, sad reality is that you will have to work when you’re sick.

Not all the time, though. Employees are legally entitled to a certain number of sick days per year, which means taking a day off shouldn’t be a problem. But at four times per year, you’re going to be told (or implied) you can’t call in sick. February, May, July and November are considered “sweeps months.” It’s the time of year when stations compile Nielsen ratings, to see which shows viewers are watching. It’s considered a make-or-break time; the results of sweeps months could influence potential advertisers, because no one wants to buy ad time on a station no one watches.

Sweeps months are usually filled with special reports, hard-hitting stories, contests, and promotional items, all designed to get more people to tune in. And because of that, stations ask that all hands be on deck.

It means you can’t request a vacation for those months. It doesn’t matter if your sister is getting married or you’ve won a trip to Disneyland, the chances of getting time off are between slim and zero. So it also means calling in sick is a no-no.

Keep in mind, there’s likely nothing in an employee’s contract that says time off is prohibited during these times. I also doubt there’s any language in an employee handbook, either. Technically, they cannot force you to come in. But it’s still expected that you be there, and the pressure to show up can be intimidating.

I was legitimately sick once during a November sweeps period month. It was a Monday. I had caught the flu over the weekend (I’ve got to remember that flu shot!) and I was confined to the couch with snotty tissues covering most of the carpet. I legitimately was in no condition to work. But it was sweeps, so I had a nervous pit in my stomach as I handled my cell phone, debating what I should say when I called in. I eventually dialed the numbers. A producer picked up.

“Hey, I’m really sick,” I said. “I’m not going to be able to make it in today.”

“Oh no!” the producer feigned sympathy. It sounded fake. But she continued. “Feel better. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

She hung up. The call took 15 seconds.

We’ll see you tomorrow. It wasn’t an optimistic hope, it came out like an expectation.

So I self-medicated, drank plenty of fluids, coughed up a lot of foul stuff, and somehow felt well enough to go into work the next day.

I walked up the stairs into the newsroom, and from my vantage point I had a clear view of the entire newsroom. I had come in a few minutes early, but some producers were already there, typing away and making phone calls. I walked past the assignment editor’s desk, a three-sided outpost in the middle of the room. “Hey Steven,” she said. She gave me a smile and seemed genuinely happy to see me. “Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” I said in my best Marlon Brando voice. I was still stuffed up. Maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal after all.

That quickly changed after I sat down. One producer walked past my desk on the way to the assignment editor.

“STE-ven,” she said, emphasizing the first syllable. “How are you feeling?” The question sounded like Chris Hansen was telling me to take a seat.

“A little better,” I said. “Still stuffed up.”

“Yeah…?” her head was cocked to one side. She didn’t say anything else, but the look on her face sad volumes. How sick were you, really?

A few minutes later, my boss walked by the right side of my cubicle and turned the corner toward me. “Mr. Sandberg,” he said, still looking at the papers in his hands. “How we doing today?”

“Feeling a little better,” I said. How many times would I have to answer this question.

“Yeah? All right,” he said.

I could feel the disappointment. Bosses always stress “if you feel sick, don’t come in,” but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.

Legally and in the big picture, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t skipped out on a big interview or left my co-workers hanging. I didn’t play hooky. I wasn’t slacking off. I just caught a flu bug. But I was too young and too scared to ever try to call in sick during sweeps again. TV news people are so conditioned with the “news never sleeps” mentality, that they can’t accept anything else. Reporters are expected to work every day, rain or shine, weekdays or holidays, and yes, sometimes even if they feel under the weather. It’s a reality you’ll have to face when you decide to start a career in TV news.

In a way, I get where the mentality comes from. Things happen so fast in TV news – stories break and information changes. And those ratings periods are considered vital for measuring viewers. You want to be at full strength for something like that, and you never want an employee who abuses his or her sick days. But subtly expecting people to push through an illness doesn’t help the finished product. It serves people a lot more to let someone take a day or two of rest, then come back at full strength.

Sometimes the expectations can be too high. During a performance evaluation one year, my bosses brought me into a conference room to review my work. We watched a couple of my packages, and talked about ways to improve my storytelling over the next year. Pretty standard stuff. Then they dropped the hammer.

“We’ve also noticed some attendance issues,” my boss said, looking down at papers he was shuffling.

“Attendance issues?”

I looked at my boss across from me, then to a producer on my left, trying to find out what they meant.

He tightened his jaw. “We’ve noticed a pattern of sick days being used around weekends. A lot of sick days on Fridays and Mondays. A lot of three-day weekends. We’d like to change that.”

I was shocked. Internally, I disagreed that this was a pattern, but I was too surprised to say anything in my defense. At that point, I only wanted to get out of that room. I could only nod and say “OK.”

When I eventually walked out, I thought of a thousand things I should have said. I racked my brain and could only see two instances in the past six months of calling in sick on a Monday or Friday. And yes, both times were legitimate. Am I not allowed to get sick at the start of end of the week? I should have said. Do germs only infect people Tuesday through Thursday? Is two times really a pattern? All of which I wanted to say. But I didn’t. The expectation is so engrained in TV folks that calling in sick becomes a thing.

If you want a job in this business, you need to recognize the expectations and pressures that some with it. And sometimes, you’ll need to fight for your right to cough up phlegm at home instead of at work.

 

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