Lauren McEwen
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Partnerships strategist & writer

For some people, calling (or emailing) out of work is a difficult and awkward process. We worry that our supervisors will think we’re lazy. We stress over the possibility we’re going to take off too much time too early in the year and be left without off days when we really need them. Worst of all, in the back of our minds, we fear that our bosses will simply respond with a “no.”

Unless you’re working in a very toxic work environment, the chances that your boss will flatout refuse to let you take some time off is slim to none. What most of us are really worried about is making sure we’re not damaging our reputations or professional futures by the way that we take off work. Here are a few tips and rules of thumb to help take the anxiety out of taking a day off of work.

Learn the difference between a sick day, a personal day and a vacation.

If you're feeling unclear about how time off works at your company, be sure to check in with your HR department. A wise woman once told me to always have a friend in security, HR and IT. It's some of the best work advice I've ever gotten, and checking in with your HR department when you have a valid question is a great way to lay down some friendship groundwork.

Most of the time, the breakdown works this way:

The lucky ones of us get paid personal days and vacations, and while everyone who is traditionally employed should try their hardest to make use of their allocated time off, those fortunate souls with PTO should definitely make the most out of it.

Never show up to work if you're contagious.

This was a mistake that I made during my first adult job. I was raised to only stay out sick if I were vomiting, had a fever, or was seriously injured. And so, it was only natural for me to show up to work while I was in the midst of getting through what was quite possibly bronchitis. I was a coughing, hacking mess.

Not only was it a distraction during meetings, but it was also incredibly inconsiderate. I thought it made me a hard worker who wasn’t going to allow a silly thing like being full of mucus to keep me from getting my job done. Instead, I was grossing everyone out by blowing my nose and risking getting them sick.

If you’re ill and potentially contagious, call out sick. Go to the doctor, spend hours in bed, drink a ton of fluids, but don’t show up to work where you could get other people sick — especially during the winter months when colds make their way around offices faster than gossip.

Give as much notice as possible.

Your supervisor is more likely to take you calling out of work well if you let them know as far in advance as possible. This goes for any kind of day off.

If you're given a deadline for scheduling your vacation, meet it. Try to give more than 24 hours notice for a personal day. If you wake up in the morning with a teeth-grinding migraine, try to contact your supervisor at least an hour before you're supposed to show up. People like advanced notice. It lets them know that you value their time.

Plan ahead for vacations.

While this might not be possible for everyone, working ahead prior to taking off work really helped me to focus on enjoying my off time. My most recent traditional job involved a lot of moving parts and forced me to spend a lot of time waiting on other people to email me materials so that I could complete my work. At first, I hated being at the mercy of other people’s to-do lists and productivity levels, but I soon learned how to schedule my tasks to fit in enough time for miscommunications, other people's busy schedules, and other workplace calamities. 

This especially came in handy when it was time for me to go on vacation. I had my monthly duties mapped out and was able to do two things.

  1. Schedule my vacation when things were regularly slow.
  2. Complete as many of my tasks as possible. The rest, I could either do remotely or ask one of my kind coworkers to take care of while I was away (with the understanding that I would do the same for them in the future, of course).

Which leads me to the next point...

Find people to cover for you.

So, what if you can’t finish all of your work before you leave? In that case, it may help to try to find co-workers who are willing to handle some of your tasks while you’re away. Settling this yourself so that your supervisor doesn’t have to is generally welcomed by your higher-ups. Just be sure to show your gratitude to your coworkers, leave detailed instructions, and return the favor whenever you can.

Foster some goodwill if you have to.

Be a team player whenever you can. This might mean agreeing to work holidays, taking on the tedious task that no one wants to handle, or covering for someone else while they’re out. By being known as a flexible, helpful and reliable employee will, of course, go a long way in many aspects of your career, but it also makes it a lot less annoying when you need to take a personal day on a Friday, for example. You’re known as someone who does their job well and steps up when needed. It also makes people more willing to cover for you.

Work from home if you can.

A great way to save sick days and personal days is to occasionally work from home. Although it takes a little self-discipline, working from home can be a timesaver. If you eliminate getting dressed, your commute, workplace small talk, meetings, and the need for an official lunch break, chances are you could be done with an eight-hour work day in five hours. You could spend the rest of that time personal day-ing it up or taking a trip to the doctor, for example.

Thank any and everyone who covered for you.

If you were vacationing and can afford souvenirs for your coworkers who picked up the slack while you were busy frolicking in the sun, or what have you, then you should be sure to grab a little token to bring back with you. If you were out sick or took a personal day that significantly impacted a number of your coworkers, a nice gesture like bringing in baked goods is affordable and always appreciated. Otherwise, just be sure to send a “thank you” email, or better yet, tell them face-to-face.

People like to feel appreciated and being gracious in the workplace, particularly with people who are either with or below you in the pecking order, goes along way.

All in all, just remember that you are allowed to take some time off. We are not robots. Humans need rest, relaxation and sometimes, days spent in bed with plenty of soup. Better to tend to yourself now than to burn out later. Unless you're calling out of work every other week, or work with someone wildly unreasonable, your boss will understand.

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Lauren McEwen is a freelance writer based in the Atlanta area.