I spent years working in the food service industry, and getting sick time was pretty much equivalent to climbing Mount Everest. So when I landed my first professional job with an unlimited sick and vacation time policy, I was stoked I wouldn’t have to stress about being sick anymore. Much to my dismay, after a few months on the job, I realized my manager pressured everyone to work while sick, even with the “unlimited” policy. Whenever I called in, they would pry about the details of my illness and try to determine if I was bad enough to stay home. Even if I had a doctor’s appointment they would give me pushback and try to find out more personal information. Did they not believe I was actually sick? Were they trying to embarrass me? Were they just being nosy?
After multiple ordeals with calling in sick, I started contemplating, what is the right thing to say? When is the best time to call in? What if they think you’re faking it? Can they actually fire you if you don’t come in? The calling in sick dilemma isn’t exclusive to any age or industry. Through every job I’ve had (and man, I’ve had a lot) I’ve noticed my coworkers felt the same pressure. We live in a society that glorifies ‘busy culture’ and sends mixed signals about sick time. Luckily, I’ve learned from a few bad experiences and hacked how to call in and not stress about it.
When to call in
If you’re on the fence about calling in sick, ask yourself the following questions: 1) Will your illness hinder your job performance? 2) Are you contagious? 3) Will you get worse if you go to work? If you answer yes to any of those questions, you should probably stay home. Even though you may feel pressured to keep up with your workload, your coworkers won’t appreciate it if you get them sick. If you’re not physically sick, but need to mentally recharge or get in a better headspace, you should take time off, too. It’s better for everyone involved if you recover and hit the ground running once you’re back to your normal self.
Barry Drexler, the Expert Interview Coach with over 30 years of executive HR experience, advises it’s best to let your boss know that you’ll be out of work as soon as possible. He explains, “It’s all about expectations. Before you’re even sick, have an agreement with your boss on exactly how it’s going to be handled. Ask your boss how you should communicate. Have that conversation before it happens and it’ll be easier.” If you have a conversation with your boss before you’re sick, you won’t have to stress when you have a 102 degree fever and your heartbeat is pulsating out of your eyelids (the flu is no joke, people). Also, if you’ve built up a good rapport, you can give your boss a heads up as soon as you start feeling run down and play the next few workdays by ear.
In the rare case that your boss isn’t the understanding type, you may want to just let them know the morning before work to minimize potential pushback. I have a friend who started feeling sick one afternoon and tried to be courteous by letting his boss know that he wouldn’t be coming in the next day. His boss’s actual response via Slack was, “See how you’re feeling in the morning. You never know—miracles happen ;)” If you find yourself in a similar situation to my friend, hold your ground and politely insist on taking the time off that you need.
How to call in
At any workplace, you should always ask about their sick time policy and how to call in if you have an illness. Make sure you specifically know who to reach out to and the best time of the day to communicate. Drexler insists, “The most important thing is that when you start, determine what the company’s policy is. That is the absolute most important thing you need to do. Know the company’s policy and your rights. You’re going to find a lot of it in the employee handbook. Find out how many sick days you’re entitled to, when to call and where to call. Most of the time it’s very specific and it’ll tell you exactly what you need to do.” Along with the company handbook, be sure to touch base with your boss to find out their specific preferences. They may want you to set an out-of-office message or let your teammates know you won’t be in for the day. Some supervisors prefer a phone call and other times an email, text or Slack message is fine.
When it comes down to what to say, less is more. Your boss doesn’t need to know the dirty details of your 3AM puke-a-thon. All you need to say is that you’re not feeling well and won’t be coming into work. If you have any upcoming projects or deadlines, you could briefly discuss how you’ll make sure they stay on track. Drexler says, “You have to both be reasonable about it. Set a boundary by saying you can’t do it now, however offer a solution, too.” For example, explain that you’ll complete the work as soon as you’re feeling better, or suggest another coworker who can potentially do it.
If your boss pushes for more information, it could be because they’re concerned or want to know how long you may be out of work. If you’re not comfortable sharing personal details, tell them you’d rather not discuss it but are happy to provide a doctor’s note. It’s completely acceptable to keep your medical information confidential. Keep in mind that how you call in sick the first time may set the tone for the future. I personally wish I’d set better boundaries from the get-go and called my boss out on their inappropriate questions, even if they weren’t asked with bad intentions.
Why you shouldn’t feel guilty
At the end of the day, you’re only human and will come down with something from time-to-time. Life has to stop (or at least slow down) so you can recover and bounce back to your normal self. You shouldn’t feel bad about taking time off to recharge. Work will never be as important as your health, period. The world won’t stop spinning and cease to exist if you take a day off (unless you work for NASA and are literally deflecting an asteroid).
If you get flak from your colleagues or boss, don’t let them persuade you into coming to work against your better judgment. If your organization makes you feel guilty for being sick there’s likely something wrong with the culture and you might not want to continue working there anyway. If your boss pushes you to work while sick, Drexler says, “Look for patterns. If the boss has a pattern of pressuring you, you have to consider if it’s the right person you want to work for.”
Anna, a recent Boston University graduate, says, “It was hard calling in sick at first because I didn’t want to let anyone down or leave extra work on someone else’s plate.” After a few months on the job and getting to know her coworkers, she felt more comfortable using her allotted sick days. She explains, “I get eight sick days per year and I pretty much use them whenever I want. I usually just shoot my boss a text in the morning when I’m not feeling well and now I don’t feel weird about it.”
Know your rights
Navigating sick time can be a complicated beast, and the laws surrounding it vary from state to state. For example, Drexler says in the state of New York, employers can require a doctor’s note after three consecutive days of illness. However, employees aren’t required to disclose any personal details about their sickness. Certain states require employers to offer paid sick time, so be sure to research your state’s laws and familiarize yourself with your rights. Even if paid sick time isn’t technically built into your benefits package, you may still be entitled to it. In some industries (like food service) employers may try to avoid paying sick time unless you advocate for yourself and demand it.
If you’re worried about being let go for taking sick time, a good rule of thumb is that you’re usually fine if you haven’t taken excessive time off and communicate with your boss in a timely manner. According to Drexler, you can technically be fired for calling in sick as an at will employee. But in the majority of cases, you’re only at risk of losing your job if you have a negative pattern of calling in sick and aren’t meeting the job expectations.
According to Employment Law Firms, in some states with sick leave laws, it’s illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for using sick leave. If you ever find yourself in a sticky situation, check with your state’s Department of Labor and consider consulting with a lawyer.
As an adult, you’re totally capable of listening to your body and determining if you’re up to working. It’s normal to feel a little nervous calling in at first because you want to put your best foot forward and show that you’re a hard worker. As long as you know how to call in and communicate effectively, you can feel confident about taking a day off. The key is to understand your company culture and policies while respecting your own personal health boundaries. So if you have to call in, don’t worry, be professional, offer solutions and, mostly importantly, hold your ground.