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Riyadh: Tuesday 27th December, 2011

Allow me to begin by wishing you all a Happy Christmas and New Year and expressing the hope that 2012 is good to you. 

My third successive Christmas in Saudi Arabia, saw me attacked by a mildly annoying head-cold which, while insignificant in terms of some of the symptoms, has left me tired and irritable. The brunt of my ire has been directed in the form of a vicious passive aggression towards my line manager, whose work station is adjacent to mine and who has seen fit to gift me, not one, but two of his precious little darlings’, contagions in the five months since his arrival.

As a result of his natural immune deficient brood and his own apparent inability to avoid them, despite being located more than 3000 miles away, I am now nursing a runny nose, dry, cracked lips, puffy eyed intolerance to light and a headache, which may be due to my clogged sinuses or be related to colossal boil which is gathering weight beneath the centre of my left cheek. I have spent much of the morning prodding this, as though by doing so, I might in some way inhibit its inevitable volcanic corporeality.

During last week, every sniff, sneeze and laboured sigh, emitted from my neighbours area was, inevitably, followed by a groan of self pity so pathetic as to completely belie his weary assertions of “being alright’ or ‘it’s okay’ and slowly heralded a gloomy certainty that I would have little option but to once again submit to the ill effects of his lergy. I have comforted myself with the knowledge that this was a regular working week for me and I would not have to suffer the annoyance of being unwell during a holiday, but as I have succumbed to the cold, I have been struck by an overwhelming irritation and frustration that something so eminently preventable should none-the-less be foisted on me.

I don’t really blame my boss. I mean I do, but I shouldn’t. While common sense would dictate that he take to his bed and (if necessary) work from home, the reality is that he cannot be seen to do so, any more than I can. A cold is unpleasant and can be quite debilitating for the sufferer, but it is only a minor ailment and persons suffering from it are expected to stoically soldier on, if possible displaying a contemptuous disregard for it’s effects. Such, I am forced to conclude, is the way of the modern work place.

Now, in reality, this was probably always the case. In prehistory, for example, I find it hard to imagine Mrs. Ugg being too enamored when Mr. Ugg decided to wrap himself in a wolf-skin and take himself to the back of the cave to sip the caveman equivalent of Horlicks, and leave the hunting of wholly mammoths to another day. And if taking to bed when you have a cold was unacceptable to hunter-gatherers, then I see little reason to propose that it should be the modus operandi for ambitious executives either.

Yet what seems a wee bit over-the-top is the machismo which accompanies a common cold. TV adverts in the UK routinely show some office worker suffering a serious cold but battling off a would-be competitor for promotion with the help of a lemon scented powdered penicillin drink. The implication of this advert is that to admit you are unwell, run down or otherwise vulnerable to inevitable ailments is tantamount to admitting that you are not really committed to your job.

Now I assume that the makers of lemon scented medicines do not wish to imply anything of the sort and in lionizing the brave executive who still manages to produce the urgent report despite being close to Death’s door, thus saving him or herself from being usurped by some cocksure junior, they appear to be denying that the common cold is essentially a trivial, if undoubtedly unpleasant matter. In other words, companies marketing cold and flu remedies have a vested interest in making us feel good about feeling… err… bad. They know full well that by playing to our competitive fears and massaging our poorly egos, they can sell more powerful, more expensive remedies.

And surprisingly, perhaps, the myth that it is somehow unmanly or uncommitted to feel the effects of a cold is propagated as much by women as by men. Last winter, I introduced my girlfriend to the term ‘Man Flu’ a relatively recent expression implying that men struggle with the debilitating effects of a mild sniffle while the supposed fairer sex soldier on, relatively unaffected by the mild inconvenience posed. Not hailing from Britain she had not heard the expression before, but loved it. It spoke a truth to her, instantly recognizable and thus hysterical to her. Male cold sufferers who find themselves teased for having Man Flu by Slovenian partners in the future may well feel justified in blaming myself for having introduced consciousness of our helplessness to that part of the world.

But the interesting thing is not that men should have a lower threshold for a common ailment than women but that women should come to buy into the same machismo associated with “soldiering on” in the office that men do. After all, have not women had to fight to achieve maternity leave or flexible working? Is not the very machismo inherent in taking a cold to work, often said to be one of the reasons for pay inequality in the work-place? In my own professional life I have known plenty of occasions when women have felt obliged to take time off work to care for a poorly infant, but have never encountered an occasion when the same can be said of a man, and if it is the case they have certainly not admitted to it.

Now I am not wholly convinced that it is a good thing to spend less time at work. But if we assume that working from home in the event that we have a cold is both sensible and productive, to perpetuate a mythology that the cold is something to be ignored and spread as a byproduct of our overwhelming commitment to the company ideal is counterintuitive.

On the contrary, Men’s attitude to the common cold should be encouraged and workers routinely sent home to recuperate in bed at the first sign of a tickly cough. Adverts for cold and flu remedies should lionize the brave soldier who emailed his report from an orthopedic bed while his long suffering wife lovingly mopped his fevered brow and brought him a constant supply of milky tea and hot toddies. And women should have the good sense to encourage this hitherto work-shy behavior as it allows them to flaunt their superior evolutionary immune systems by spending more time at work and finally smashing the pay ceiling. It would also, incidentally, make me feel a great deal better than I do, today.


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