I was doing some research for a client piece recently that involved stats on sick days and how many people come to work sick rather than staying home. At first reading that 60% of workers continue coming to work while sick didn’t surprise me. Most places I’ve worked I ended up alongside someone with the sniffles — or it was me.

But when I researched the reasons why people said they came into work that way it got me thinking.

The two biggest reasons people gave were:

  1. “My boss expects me to.” Whether it’s an explicit command or an implied thing, a lot of people don’t think their employers consider being legitimately ill a good enough reason not to come in (sometimes even with a doctor’s note).
  2. “I can’t afford to miss the work; it’d pile up too much.” Fear of getting the rest one needs because of being overloaded.

I’ve worked with people who have said these. Hell, I’ve said them. But I figured reasons like “I don’t have that much paid time off available and I don’t want to waste it on a cold,” would factor in more. But more than a personal desire to save those PTO days, most people feel trapped, like they have no choice but to come in no matter what.

A pattern began to form in my mind, especially when I considered recent experiences from those close to me. I won’t list the companies because some of them are still there, but for several of them they’re essentially on call 24/7. The implied command is “You answer this work phone no matter when they call or you’re in trouble.”

These are not even high-ranking executives (or doctors) where you might expect this, and the culture at these companies is very much “You belong to me. You can have a life IF and WHEN your incredible work load is under control. And if that doesn’t happen for weeks or months on end? Accept it.”

In one recent example a friend was told he couldn’t go to his uncle’s funeral because work was more important. “We need you here more,” his boss said. Not even an apology or an admission of how crappy that is for the employee that can’t say goodbye. Another was told she’d be fired if she went to her sister’s wedding. A single mom had to embark on what she was told would be a week out of state for a client, and it turned into three. Luckily she had family that could watch her son, but it didn’t stop. Two weeks later, another long trip there was no way out of, and no, that kind of thing was not in the job description.

I’ve worked at some places with stupid policies like anyone else, but when these inner circle folks shared their stories with me it sounded almost like indentured servitude. I couldn’t even believe it was legal, not here. So I looked it up and was saddened to discover that while under salary you are indeed basically a company’s bitch. They can require you to work whenever they want, for as many hours as they want. No matter how badly it destroys your life, your body, or your mind, there is no legal constraint there. And if you refuse to do it? They have “every right” to fire you. Unlikely overtime pay is a gift for all that, but not an obligation.

In the past when entrepreneurs and self employed folks spoke of their work as freedom I thought they were being dramatic. Sure, it’d be nice not to have a boss, I thought, but you make it sound like escaping a prison camp.

The more years pass the less dramatic that sounds. I don’t know if conditions are objectively getting worse across America or if I’m just becoming less naive to corporate bullshit. In either case, it gives me a heavy heart.

And we often don’t even see the damage, not really, while it’s happening. The last corporate gig I worked I threw all of myself into. Nights, weekends, whatever it took. I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to matter. I knew on some level that I was sacrificing my personal life to do it, but it wasn’t clear until I wasn’t there anymore how hard I’d tanked my personal relationships and hobbies.

People lose interest and move on. Some are angry at what they feel was indifference toward them. I can’t blame them, but it’s tough to reclaim the loss.

I’m not saying having a job in itself is bad. There are plenty of good jobs out there. But the number of stories that make a joke of the American Dream are prevalent are becoming more common than just a distant thing you hear about. And the number of those working somewhere with humanity in its policies seems to be shrinking.

Anyone that tries to break out on their own to escape this bizarre system is often “fooling themself” in the eyes of their peers. If they fail and come slinking back, their friends giving a glance that seems to say “You tried, man, but nobody escapes.” And if they do succeed and are successful? Resentment from those still inside. If it conjures a prison analogy, it’s because your buddy has a hard time celebrating your freedom when he’s still worrying about getting shanked every day.

None of this is new. Maybe it’s objectively gotten worse or maybe it’s the same old shit. Would either one be better than the other? I used a lot of personal experience here, but I’m really writing this post for those around me. I feel for you. I don’t know what the answer is, but it looks like 21st century slavery sometimes. After all, the American Dream was just a marketing campaign by Fannie Mae to sell mortgages in the 1950s.