Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Hangover at work

Now that the Hospital District of Etelä-Pohjanmaa has decided to fire everyone who shows up at work drunk or hung over, there seems to be some kind of debate on whether this is too much, and whether one should be allowed to work while hung over.

It's pretty much self-evident to me that this depends on the job they are doing. A floor sweeper or a system administrator can usually work when slightly drunk or hung over. A surgeon, better not.

Defining and proving a hangover is a bit hard, but that's not really the point. IMO the interesting point here is not so much that the Hospital District doesn't want hungover people at work, but that they want those people to take an unpaid day off, as opposed to a sick day.

What exactly is it that makes a hangover something other than a sickness in these and many other people's opinion? That it is self-inflicted? Well, guess what: half of my colds, and probably also those of other people, are self-inflicted and happen because I decided to hang out with some friend in spite of knowing that the friend has a cold. Probably more than half of my food poisonings happen due to my failure to check that the food I eat contains the one ingredient that causes me food poisoning symptoms. A lot of burns and broken bones happen because people are being careless.

Seriously: I understand that employers don't approve of employees making themselves sick. I just don't think it's an employer's business to define that some ways of making oneself sick (for example visiting sick relatives) is acceptable, whereas another (drinking) is immoral and therefore can't be considered real sickness.

One obvious difference between self-inflicted hangover and self-inflicted cold, however, is the former's potential for high frequency. There is only so many cold viruses going around during the same year, and only so many times you can get a cold in a given year. You can, in theory, be hungover every day.

While IMO it's not an employer's business to tell the employee the acceptable ways of getting sick, I think that the question of how much of self-inflicted sickness an employer should have to tolerate is not nearly as clear, and I don't have even an approximate answer. Forget the hangovers and the social stigma of alcohol abuse - what is an employer supposed to do, for example, about an employee who does some dangerous sports in a way that keeps him or her home with injuries one-third of the time?

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