The premise of the above article titled, “Sick at Work,” published in Business News Daily by Ned Smith, is that workplaces are becoming breeding grounds for bacteria and sickness. I was struck by this article, not for the valid point that when people come to work they are bringing disease into the workplace, but more by the idea that this is some new trend. Perhaps the author did not intend this deduction but in speaking to a few people after reading the article, many made comments from the perspective that this was somehow a new trend and also something that is morally not acceptable.
Morals aside, this is not a new trend. It is the normative behavior and something that only recently has had any alternate expectation. Workplaces for centuries have been breeding grounds of disease, infection, and injury. It was so bad in the early part of the 19th century that the gains that we had made in extending life from the average span of late 20’s in the early 1700s up to the early 40s by 1810s was reversed statistically back to the late twenties by 1840 as a result of the industrial revolution.
This article is interesting to me because it illustrates an expectation for a behavior that has simply never existed. People , for the most part, have always gone to work when sick for a number of reasons. First, historically, they could not stay home because there was no such thing as sick days, PTO and time off—they would have lost their job and/or not gotten paid if they did not work. For many others, not involved in industrial labor or work by the physical activities of hunting, fishing and farming. No work meant no eating. So people when they were sick, lived with it or died trying.
Second, we were not germ conscious till the early 1800s and not hyper conscious about germs till the middle of the 1900s. Society know little of sanitation. People were routinely exposed to numerous bacteria and viruses and for the most part their immune systems were able to fight them off due to natural selection. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, the people that were at risk of these diseases either got sick, fought it off and recovered or they died and did not reproduce any further.
With the birth of germ theory in the mid 1800s, through the discovery of antibiotics and later penicillin in the mid 1900s all this has changed. Today, we are more sensitive to the bacterial and viral realm that we were, and the pathogenic organisms that prey on us and harm or kill us are now much stronger organisms, due to their own natural selection. As we have used biochemical warfare to kill off their species, some strong ones survived, reproduced and the resulting organisms were soon no longer susceptible to the antibiotic. So, today we are weaker immunologically and the other species that hunt us are stronger, both are the result of our relatively modern practice of pulling ourselves out of natural selection by protecting us with artificial methods.
We are now more at risk and since we remain susceptible and we live to reproduce we are producing children that have not been selected for their resistance so these future generations will be at more risk than us. Times do change you know!
There is no alternative and I am not advocating some naturalist approach, just remarking as to the conundrum.