Sunday, May 24, 2015

How To Make A Zookeeper Guilty: SICK DAY edition

How familiar are these scenarios:

You get home after a long day of work, exhausted.  Maybe a little more exhausted than normal, but you just brush it off.  But as the evening hours pass, you feel worse.  Not even binge-watching Netflix can help you ignore your uncontrollable shivering with crippling body aches and a feeling like, "Yup, I'm going to die today."

Nailed it.


You are ripped from a peaceful sleep by a stabbing pain, rhythmically  pulsating in your stomach.  And then, through sheer involuntary muscular power, thanks to some invisible little organism having a great old time, your body and everything you've eaten in the last 24 hours experiences an exodus of biblical proportions through all available exits.

Like that scene in Problem Child 2 with the puke tubes coming out of everybody

I'm sure most of us (unfortunately) have been quite sick before, probably with at least one of the above-listed ailments.  I know I sure have and you can read all about it in its painful hilarity here.

For most hard-working people, getting sick is one of the deeply troubling Internal Philosophical Arguments (IPAs as referenced herein*).  Especially if you're an animal trainer or caretaker, you've got a long mental fight ahead of you the moment you realize you're not feeling so well.

I was inspired to write about this topic because it popped up on the Zookreeper Facebook page the other day.  It's comforting to know that the collective zoo and aquarium field experiences the same wrenching guilt that I (and I'm sure many of you) feel when I get sick and realize it's one of those things I need to call out for.  But WHY?  What is the source of our guilt.  Why do we begin the IPA discussion in our minds when we contemplate using a sick day at our jobs?

Look, if Viggo was in my house on a work day, I'd call in lovesick.

Well first off, it's not like we all work at large facilities with massive staffs.  Maybe some of us do, but many of us don't.  Many of us work on a team just large enough to manage through a day; one person's unscheduled loss is definitely felt.  The first feeling of sorrow stems from the worry that People Will Be Mad that they have to do YOUR workload in addition to theirs.

Secondly, we are a driven bunch of people. Animal trainers and caretakers work their butts off to put 145% of themselves into all aspects of care for their animals (well, at least us good ones do!).  We worked very hard to get the job we have, and we take it very seriously.  The lives of animals we love fiercely depend on us doing our job very well each and every day.  We don't cut corners**.   So when we're sick, we think, "Hey, I'll just tough it out.  Feverish hallucinations never killed anybody!"***

"Yeah, I'll just tough this out."

Thirdly, and please don't get too worked up over this, some of us may not have very understanding management.  There are some work cultures in our field (and in others) that are not very compassionate towards individual employees when it comes to the "inconvenience" of sick days.  Let's face it, even if you have a great boss, it's still scary to call out.  What if they think you're lying? What if they are really secretly mad and it shows up on your next annual review?  What if they set you back on your goals?  WHAT IF IT GOES ON THAT PERMANENT RECORD OF LIFE AND OH GOD I WILL NEVER GET A JOB ANYWHERE ELSE AND I'LL WIND UP LIVING IN MY CAR WITH SEVEN CATS?  

But look how happy she is!

But seriously, the Will Boss Get Mad concept is a major player in the IPA of calling in sick for a zookeeper.  It is made exponentially worse when you are not working for a very sensitive person.  Yet another reason to ignore those festering pustules and slog it out.

There are other reasons why people may feel guilty calling out sick, but those are the three big ones in my experience.  So what's the point?  What are you supposed to do when you really do need to take a sick day?

You guys, and this is the greatest hypocrisy of our amazing field: Treat yourself like you'd treat the animals in your care.  We do AMAZING things for the critters we get to see and love every day.  If you're a trainer, what kind of operant conditioning do you use?  Positive reinforcement.  If one of the animals gets injured or falls ill, what do you do? You and your veterinary staff take care of them. You put all of your effort into ensuring a thorough and speedy recovery.   If they are involved in any kind of show, presentation or public appearance, you let them set the pace of what they want to do (and that might mean they don't do any of those things). 

You take care of me! :D

Why do we not treat ourselves (and for other supervisors and managers out there, our subordinate staff) as compassionately as we treat the animals?  I'm not sure.  It's a complicated topic (it's an IPA after all).  We can't be responsible for treating illness in our employees, d'uh.  That's their job.  But we can certainly make it easier and less stressful for the people on our teams to make smarter decisions about their own health.  Because remember, we work with some extremely dedicated, hard-working and trustworthy people (if they AREN'T that, why are they on your team?).  Here's a fact: us dedicated, hard-working and trustworthy people sometimes make really bad decisions about our own health because we'd rather take care of sea lions than sit on a couch eating toast and ginger ale.

Except toast with peanut butter.  I'll eat that all day anywhere, anytime.

I'm writing about this topic like I've somehow mastered or eradicated the guilt I feel anytime I call out sick.  Ha! Not a chance.  I don't necessarily think it's possible for me to really get rid of it.  Chances are, that's the same situation with you.  We are wired that way.  But I have come up with a system that works for me to help me determine when it's a good time to take a sick day with minimal guilt, including WHY it's important.  

This isn't medical advice. This is my system; if you like it, awesome!! But remember, when you're sick, call a health care provider and get the scoop. 

My PERSONAL Middle Flipper IPA Guide To Less-Guilty Sick Days


1) Have a fever

Aye aye, captain!

2) If my G.I. system is doing things that defy the laws of physics

However, cats defy the laws of physics all the time.  If your cat defies the laws of physics, you can't call out sick.

3) Have gotten absolutely no sleep due to nasty illness symptoms

*insert maniacal, cackling laughter here*

4) Have anything contagious, even if I'm are capable of working (you know, like pink eye.  Ew)

Oh, well-played Picard.  Stupidity doesn't count.  

5) Have a doctor's note.  I actually have to follow their advice (what, are they doctors or something?)

A doctor's note = Pendant of Life from Legends of the Hidden Temple.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list.  It's your choice when it's time to stay home. As long as you are not being dishonest and/or abusing the system, it is totally your decision.  In the U.S. it's your right as an employee!

The Philosophy

1) Having a contagious illness is the worst thing you can bring to a workplace.  Think it's hard missing one person on a team?  Try three.  Or Five.  Because they're all puking their guts out, or seeing dinosaur unicorns in a feverish haze.   Can't see the dinocorns? Oh, that's probably because your eyes are sealed shut with pink eye mucus.  STAY HOME AND HEAL YOURSELF! I don't want none of that #*%&!


2) You are not operating at full capacity, or even 50% capacity, when you have a knockout sickness or  injury that prevents you from doing your job.  Okay, a little head cold or something may be something we can suck it up and work through without a problem.  But the flu?  Bronchitis?  Something that really makes you sick sick sick, you're worthless at work.  

Bahaha oh Mitch, your life perspective refreshes me.

3) Take care of yourself.  You do it for the animals, why not for yourself?  Taking one sick day to recover and get back on your feet is better than pushing yourself and winding up with a doctor's note mandating you are on bed rest for five days.  I've seen that happen with people a number of times; it could've been prevented had they just been a little nicer to themselves in the beginning.   

Take care of yourself so you can take the best care of me!! 

4) Your team is going to be just fine.  That's what your team is there for; to support one another.  You do it for your coworkers, and they'll do it for you.  Personally, the ONLY time I've been frustrated in that setting is when I know the person who called out sick was not actually sick (they told me they were going to play hooky) and it was on a super busy day.  But even on the days when we're busy, short-staffed, and it's one of those Hey Let's Invite Murphy To Work Today, You Know The Guy Who Made Up That Law? days, I am never irritated or frustrated with someone who calls out sick.  So what, maybe I work a little harder that day.  Usually that translates to more animal time for me anyway!

More time with these faces?? Yes please!!!!!

5) If you're someone who abuses the system, STOP IT.  You're making it crappy for the rest of us.  Seriously.


And for those of us in a supervisory position where we field the sick calls, it's a good for us to remind ourselves how scary it is to call in.  That the vast majority of our team members are honest adults with a driving passion to do the best in their job every day.  That they put the animals and their team first; so calling in sick is the last thing they want to do.  Instead of answering their sick calls with an irritated tone, or trying to bargain with them to come in (or worse, guilting them in), let's show them the same exact compassion we show for the animals in our care.

This is a larger topic I'll admit, but if you are concerned as a manager that your staff cannot maturely handle the sick day policy, you have a much, much bigger issue.  Trust your staff, make your policy clear and fair and stick with it.  If I am concerned that a particular individual is not being honest, then I deal with that person as his or her own entity...not the entire team (the same way we'd work through illness or injury in our animal families)!

So let's all take a deep, refreshing breath.  Sick happens.  And when it does, it's okay to call out if you feel that's the best thing.  That surge of guilt will pass when you realize you're not only doing what's best for you, but for your team (both humans and non-humans).  It's okay!!!

Dogters.  Haha, get it?

* IPAs as defined by this blog may be improved or worsened by drinking the beer IPAs: user discretion is advised

** If you do, get another job!

*** They have.

1 comment:

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