The Tragedy of Commons 2: Learning my own Lesson

Monday morning. I got up at 06.30 as usual. Had spent much of Sunday afternoon struggling through school preparation despite feeling lousy, and intermittently coughing my guts up.

Dilemma: to go to school or not? Head said yes, body said emphatically, no. I had awoken early with more bouts of extreme coughing…not a good sign. And yet, guilt drove me to get up, make tea, eat breakfast, start getting dressed. More coughing; could barely drag myself around the house. And then a penny dropped: the pressure to work when unwell is also a Tragedy of Commons.

Some time ago, my school introduced a reward for 100% attendance. It’s hardly a revolutionary practice, but I know for a fact that coupled with ‘return to work’ meetings it has pushed the absentee rate down significantly. Clearly a way of upping the ante. And it was contributing to my guilt at taking one measly day off, for the first time in several years, even when I was clearly not fit to be working. All for a bottle of cheap wine.

It’s a clever trick – and the few hundred quid that it costs no doubt saves the school much more in cover costs and general hassle. But it is a wise policy? Has that increase in attendance come from people who were winging it – or those who should really have stayed at home? I see plenty of people at work who probably shouldn’t be.

I will be clear: this is in no way an attempt to justify unwarranted absence; there were a few (now largely departed) whose absenteeism was shocking. My own absence rate is very low. Neither is it a criticism of schools for needing to keep attendance rates high: good supply teachers are scarce, and cover adds an unwelcome extra burden to colleagues. But in fact, schools and colleagues too may be losing out if they are getting this wrong. Here is another example of a well-meant, apparently sensible policy where the solution is potentially worse than the problem.

My head began to have second thoughts: need to listen to common sense. Any sane person would listen to their body telling them that they were not fit for work. No class is going to appreciate being taught by a guy who keeps doubling up at the front of the room. It will affect not only the quality of teaching but perhaps also my authority longer-term with those classes, if things are allowed to slip. And it isn’t good for my professional dignity either.

I am probably past the infectious stage – but in the round, it ought to be obvious that dragging people in from their sick beds, so that they can pass germs around their pupils and colleagues is hardly the best way to manage the matter; far from reducing absence, it may even increase it. Struggling when unfit may also delay recovery, leading to more absence, or at least ineffective ‘presenteeism’. It is certainly unlikely to result in high-quality teaching – and having unwell people around is hardly uplifting for the morale of the rest, either. As for extra cover – well, it’s a nuisance, but try thinking of it as the price to be paid for the ability reasonably to take a day off yourself when you’re unwell. I’m sure my school would say that the 100% policy is not meant to deter genuinely ill people from taking time off, but that is nonetheless its effect. Maybe that’s reasonable. maybe not.

This is why it is a tragedy of commons: a superficially sensible policy to encourage high attendance risks having a collectively detrimental effect. Apart from the impact on teaching quality, the human cost is high. Perhaps higher than we realise. People struggle into work when they really should be resting and recovering – and then there is the guilt that is added to the misery of illness. What’s more, there is no telling to which vulnerable people elsewhere those germs could be exported. One should not need to feel guilty about taking time off for genuine illness; after all, guilt is probably the last thing being felt by those who do abuse the system – so dangling attendance incentives could, in any case, be targeting precisely the wrong people.

Our work is important. But it is not as important as health – and poor health will only compromise our future good work. If we are unwell, we should be sensible about taking time off; the feelings of worthy martyrdom from struggling in are really not worth it, and certainly should not justify it. And from the school’s point of view, can we be certain that the policy really was introduced in the belief it would maximise educational benefit – or simply minimise logistical difficulties? If the latter, the off-loading of such ‘risk’ onto the individual is not only a dereliction of care towards one’s employees, but it may be counter-productive for the institution too.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Tragedy of Commons is endemic in society: the scenario outlined above is by no means peculiar to me, my particular workplace, or even only to schools. It seems pretty universal – but here is where Irvine’s claim that the antidote is in understanding the dynamic. Once one does, one can make a more balanced, considered decision.

So I decided to learn from my own wisdom: DON’T CONTRIBUTE TO MAKING THE PRESSURE WORSE FOR OTHERS!

I sent in my cover work, made the necessary phone calls – and went back to bed.



After a week of illness, two days off and still feeling rough, I went to my G.P. who diagnosed a viral infection with fever and signed me off for the rest of the week. Only now, on Thursday evening is there a glimmer of an improvement. I think I made the right call…


(I should add that my school has been completely understanding about my absence – but that does not negate the wider point).

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