Playing the ‘sick role’ and facing up to your responsibilities

The man flu and its treatment. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The man flu and its treatment. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
For the second time in three months I have had a good dose of the man flu.

Medical sociologists have investigated the phenomenon and have aligned it to something called the "sick role". The term was invented by an American medical sociologist, Talcott Parsons, who was trying to explain how the West absolves certain people from fulfilling their responsibilities when they become unwell.

It has four parts. The first part is that if someone gets sick it is not their fault. The second part is that the person is exempt from certain duties such as employment, thirdly they must try to get better, and, fourthly, to get better it may involve appropriate medical care.

Whenever I have mentioned the sick role to students it invariably leads to laughter because they think I am joking. However, it is real. If I get sick, I can take time off, I can sit and watch Star Wars and test cricket all day, I can request treats to help me feel better and I am forgiven for not tidying up.

To take advantage of sick role status I may have to fulfil certain conditions. With my employer all I need to do is send an email and it is taken on trust. In the past I would use the telephone, but make sure I didn’t speak in too cheerful a voice.

However, with our life partners sometimes we have to prove that there is a clear demarcation line between sick, but well enough to go to work, and, sick but poorly enough to stay home and not do any chores. This involves removing some of the facades of stoicism and allowing the inner invalid to be exposed. This is what often gets called man flu.

There are numerous criticisms of the sick role model including that it is a very Western and gendered way of looking at society, particularly employment. There are some cultures that expect you to go to work no matter how unwell you are.

In Māori society people will often attend tangihanga even when they shouldn’t. Even in Western societies motherhood is one of those roles that don’t seem to get the same relaxation of regular duties when they get sick as men often get.

What this is leading up to is the actual point of this article. As I started to write this, my nose was streaming and I wanted to get some pseudoephedrine because I was sick of four days of sneezing with a nose like a tap. I had heard that the coalition government had made it available over the counter, but saw on the news that it wasn’t going to be until July and so I used a substitute, which worked anyway.

The restocking of pseudoephedrine is reportedly in direct contradiction to the advice of officials who warned that as it was targeted by organised crime in the past, there was a major risk that this would happen again. Some pharmacists are very worried about increased robberies, burglaries and intimidation of pharmacists, as regularly happened before it was a prescription-only medicine.

The coalition government’s David Seymour said "there have been some risks raised that there has been crime related to it in the past, but the benefits are enormous ... ultimately it’s not right for people who are following the law and going about their business and not harming anyone else to be held responsible for the action of criminals".

So if crime is going to happen as a direct result of government policy then the coalition government takes no responsibility for it.

Interestingly, this is the exact opposite stance they took regarding the effort to reduce smoking by limiting the number of tobacco outlets. Prime Minister Luxon said that one of the main arguments for not limiting tobacco sales is that the shops who sell cigarettes will "become massive magnets for crime and retail crime".

Both pseudoephedrine and tobacco are legal but restricted products. Pseudoephedrine has a large positive use, but a considerable negative mis-use whereas tobacco has no positive use at all except, apparently, for its role in burdening poorer people with considerable tax to help fund rich people’s tax cuts.

In its pursuit of ideology, the government appears to be forgoing principle. They are willing to act to prevent potential criminality with tobacco, but dismiss the risk of pseudoephedrine’s association to the production of methamphetamine.

My suspicion is that these excuses are smoke screens where the inconsistent application of principle will erode trust in their agenda.

Today, I am back to normal and I managed to get well without my wife rolling her eyes. I therefore must have demonstrated to her satisfaction that I had correctly applied the conditions of the sick role.

— Dr Anaru Eketone is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago’s social and community work programme.