Monday, October 12, 2009

Sniffle Season

It's fall and the sound of snot is already filling my workplace.

Living in a city the size of Tokyo, you encounter a lot of people on a daily basis. And frankly, people are pretty dirty. It probably doesn't help that there is no custom to cover one's mouth when they cough or sneeze here. I've seen people pick their nose on the train and then immediately re-grab a pole or strap too. As a result, I make it policy to not touch anything.

I'm not ragging on Tokyo here. Frankly, I was appalled at how dirty San Francisco was when I first moved there. I later came to understand it was an "enlightened dirty", something you have to develop an appreciation for. Tokyo, being a far larger city than San Francisco, is correspondingly more enlightened.

So, with the H1N1 virus looming large in the headlines, my workplace has instituted policies including putting hand sanitizers at all of the entrances to "prevent carrying the virus in". We have also been instructed to stay at home if we are running a fever or otherwise suspect we may have contracted swine flu.

Now there is something that has always puzzled me: if you are feeling sick, why would you go into work to get all of your coworkers sick too? This was a complaint I've been harboring for years. Some fool thinks their work is so important that they come into the office and get 5 other people sick. If those five people have any sense, they'll stay at home to prevent further spreading illness, thereby reducing productivity 500% more than if the first person had just stayed home in the first place! But people don't think that way. They think just about their own deadlines or how to make themselves look better to their boss. It is the tragedy of the commons: in trying to sustain their own productivity, the productivity of the company as a whole -- or even the economy as a whole -- takes a hit. In their effort to wring half of their usual productivity in between bouts of coughing or sneezing, they risk spreading their funk to five, ten, a hundred others.

Please stop.

That said, the life of a Japanese salary man is pretty competitive. It is my experience that paid sick days are unheard of -- if you take a day off work, that comes out of your vacation time. Worse, if you take a day off, you "fall behind" your peers. You lose brownie points with your boss. When it comes times for promotion, it is Brownie Point Redemption Day and no one wants to be denied entrance to the pearly gates of management for another year of salary man purgatory.

Which explains why there are so many sick people on the train during the morning commute and why there are so many sick people in my office.

I had one coworker not come in today because H1N1 has been spreading around his daughter's elementary school and apparently made it back to his house. But in my giant open-plan office of 150+ people, there are at least ten more here and sniffling today. And fall is just starting.

I'm actually pretty concerned about coming down with H1N1 myself before the winter is over. It isn't that I'm so much worried about the illness itself -- like the SARS scare of a few years ago, it sounds like H1N1 is more bark than bite. What I'm concerned about is all of the bureaucracy that I would need to deal with. You see, my company has actually instituted a special policy just for H1N1 allowing us to stay home without consuming vacation days if we get a letter from the doctor proving we have H1N1. However, we can only come back to work once we have another letter from the doctor saying we're cured.

I never liked going to the doctor in the U.S., I really don't like doing it in a foreign country. Twice. For a disease they can't cure, no less.

That said, this seems like a nice safe policy to protect the company from H1N1-infected workers thinking they are so important that they need to come in anyway. They are telling us to stay home; even allowing us a special paid leave to do so.

I don't think it'll work, though, for all the same reasons workers always come in to spread their virus-infested cough spew. They should always stay home when the alternative is to risk getting everyone else sick too. But they need the brownie points. It is much easier to put on a mask and just pretend it is a cold than it is to deal with the doctor visits and company bureaucracy. And if they come in, they get the face time and bonus "perseverance" points that managers remember.

My forecast: a train-full of H1N1-carriers dutifully trudging into work, snorting and sniffling all the way. Shoot, come to think of it, even if they were clinic-bound, they'd be on the train sharing their germs.

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