Friday Open Thread: Why Do So Many of Us Almost Work Ourselves to Death?

by Jess Burnquist

This week comes to an end with Hillary Clinton easing back onto the Presidential campaign trail after a bout of bacterial pneumonia plus a whole lot of hullabaloo over the fact that she got sick. There have been sound-offs about how her illness signals weakness, as well as commentary suggesting that she was doing what most women do when they fall ill — power through to the point of exhaustion.

We need to discuss that today. 

Several years ago, I landed in the pulmonary wing of the same hospital where my children were born. I had been suffering for over a week from fairly severe asthma attacks — but it was the beginning of the school year. I was the sponsor for a creative writing club as well as Student Government and we had an assembly coming up. My own children were experiencing milestones in their lives — one starting junior high and the other starting high school. Life was busy. 12-15 hour days were the norm. I brushed off my symptoms until one morning at work, when I was struggling for air, I stopped by the nurse's office to borrow a nebulizer in order to give myself a breathing treatment using the medications and supplies I'd brought from home.

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The nurse hovered. Then she picked up the phone and demanded that the principal send me home or to the hospital. I stared at her as though she'd lost her mind, and then for the first time in days I checked in with my body. I felt awful. Upon being seen at the emergency room, I was told that a tracheotomy may need to be performed if my oxygen levels didn't begin to rapidly improve. I was hospitalized for four days. During my stay, a pulmonologist visited me and after asking about my daily schedule, he ordered me to "knock it off." He wrote a letter to my administration (which I never needed to use as they were immediately and wonderfully supportive) to release me from extra-curricular responsibilities until I was well. Those four days were uncomfortable, scary, and invaluable. It was the wake-up call I needed and that my body deserved. 

Since then, I've wondered what led me to work to the point of exhaustion, illness, and quite frankly, near death. Is it because I'm a woman trying to balance the world? I'm not sure. My husband is my partner on every level. Is it because I was trying to minimize my own suffering out of some "wonder woman" complex? Perhaps. But, where did that message come from? My mother works extremely hard, and I come from an ambitious family. Certainly though, they value self care. 

Here's what I know — as a teacher, especially, to take time off from work is more work than showing up ill. This is due to having to track down a substitute, make emergency lesson plans, worry over the progress gained being lost, etc. However, I don't want to model to my children or to my students that caring for oneself is selfish nor that one's health and well-being should come last. Why does this pressure exist and are we going to change it?

This is where you come in, dear readers. Have you experienced the pressure to push through illness? To work through pain or suffering? If so, what do you attribute that to? Is it the threat of losing your job? Losing ground in your field? Losing power in your office or work environment? Let's hash this out while the topic is hot and maybe, together, we can also pave the way for change. 

Please, comment below!