Medical Leaves and Muster Plasters


Medical Leaves and Muster Plasters

  • By Ian Bradley
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It’s 7 am on a rainy February day in the middle of week when I’m 10 years old and just waking up with a detectable, and if amplified, quite apparent scratchy throat.


As a university professor with a private practice in workplace psychology, that specific day is very much in the past. However, I can still recall the type of mental debate that went through my mind.


“Ah, Wednesday, I have gym today and that’s a good reason to go to school, on the other hand, I have two periods of boring English followed by something I hate – music. I’ve been reading this great Hardy Boys adventure that I could finish if I stayed home, and besides, I’d be right here in front of the TV to get the beginning of the Three Stooges. I know that I could present a good portrait of a boy with a stricken throat to my mother, but that would mean the dreaded MUSTARD PLASTER.


You see my mother was not a person to take colds lightly. If you had something, there was a treatment. However, my mother was no fool either. She knew that, unless I had a broken leg or something disastrous, then there was little reason not to attend school, especially since it was across the street from our house. Therefore, staying home from school should not be an unencumbered path, hence the mustard plaster.


My mother was not fond of either the kitchen or cooking; however, this culinary resistance did not prevent her from whipping-up a mustard plaster –a heat could have melted the snow from our west Toronto roof. Although she layered my chest with insulating cream – an aversive smell almost worse than the plaster. Despite wrapping the mustard concoction in layers of felt, it still hurt quote my mother: ”like Hades.”


Well, this was my conscious dilemma at 7 am on that cold Wednesday morning as I weighed the pros and cons of staying home; “no English, but also no friends at recess; escape from Music but no TV at least until the afternoon, Three Stooges at four but was it all worth the pain of the mustard plaster.” At last my decision to stay home followed by the carefully crafted presentation to the judge, my mother.


Technically, my mother made the decision, however I presented the evidence that I presented was crafted after a thoughtful deliberation of the relative benefits and cost of staying home or going to school.


The parallels to the events surrounding a medical leave of absence for burnout or stress are strikingly similar. The stakes are higher of course, and more professionals are involved, but the raw material and the process are pretty much the same.


A worker begins to experience some stress at work, perhaps from an over-demanding boss or perhaps from a surfeit of tasks for which there is no organizational support. Physical signs of stress grow, worry about the physical damage the symptoms might be causing increases and whatever enjoyment there was associated with going to work begins to drain. The employee usually tries various things to rectify the situation, but at some point the idea of going out on a medical leave dawns. It’s an easy thought to have since there has been a veritable epidemic of stress-related leaves from the workplace in almost every industry over the last twenty years. The worker’s typical debate involves something like:


“I don’t want to leave everyone in the lurch but I’m worried about my own health. Also, that boss doesn’t seem to care about me and I’d love to see how she would cope with me not being there, then again, what would I do at home, and ..if I did go out on leave, what would happen to my career. I can’t see getting a promotion after this.”


Perhaps with one final push, a night of sleepless worry or an angry boss, the decision is made, ‘I’m going to see the doctor.” As with my mother, the evidence presented to the doctor is not fabricated but it is processed and delivered to produce a certain result – the all important medical note requiring time off work for a medical leave. A note that gives the impression of neutral objectivity but which, in fact, is based on very managed material.


The mustard plaster? Well, sometimes, there is no mustard plaster. The worker is able to rest, the workplace improves, the worker is successfully re-integrated and the entire incident is forgotten. But sometimes, not ( to be continued)