It’s not like it was in middle school when perfect attendance—not missing a single day of school in a year—could grant you a certificate, award, mention during morning announcements on the last day of classes or maybe a bright gold sticker.

While you don’t want to be unreliable in your workplace and get the reputation of a slacker, you do want to reserve the right to call in sick. Certainly you don’t want to do this too often or too infrequently. You want to do this just right.

Yes, call in sick and spare your co-workers when you have a fever, strep throat, are sneezing, coughing or have an upset stomach or food poisoning. Use common sense and know you do not have the right to spread your contagious germs. Be considerate and wait until your illness is under control or symptoms are eliminated by over the counter cures. 


You may also want to consider using your sick time if you feel desperately stressed for reasons related to work or current events — it may be necessary for your mental health. Perhaps you must attend to a family emergency or take bereavement leave, or have serious issues to take care of outside of work that must be accomplished during workday hours and cannot be contained in a lunch break. This does not include waiting for a repair person to arrive. You can schedule that for the weekends.

Why is the notion of calling in sick important for women leaders especially? Because gender bias assures that women in most work places will be under scrutiny and deemed not serious, distracted or even flighty if they are categorized as calling in sick too often. As my sister-in-law Bernadette would say, “No fake-atitis.”

While there is no legal mandate at the federal, state, county or municipal level for paid sick leave, new laws in Arizona, proposals in Maryland and enacted legislation in the City of Chicago and elsewhere are causing a stir. Some companies lump sick days, vacation days and other days off all together into paid time off without differentiating what is what.

In Maryland, a new bill is getting pushback and making employers mad, according to Carroll County Times. “According to the bill text of HB1, all businesses with more than 15 employees are required to issue five paid sick days a year once the employee has been on the payroll 106 days. This does not take into account whether someone has full-time or part-time status.”

In Chicago and Cook County recently, according to Lexology, “Paid-sick-leave ordinances require employers to grant paid sick leave to employees on terms more generous than what most employers have historically offered.”

About half of companies have an official policy that offers paid time off for sick days. So it is best that you know the company policy, stick to it, and not earn the reputation of someone who is always making ridiculous excuses and being absent for whatever reason. Early in your career this can damage your reputation, mid-career it can signal that you are not serious about advancement, and if you reach the C-suite as a woman leader, it may give everyone a reason to reinforce gender bias. And no one needs that.

“According to a report from World at Work, a nonprofit human resources association, 43 percent of companies offered PTO in 2016. That’s up from 28 percent in 2002,” reports NewJersey1015.

“If a company doesn’t need a reason when an employee takes time off, a worker may feel more comfortable using all of their days allotted. With vacation and sick days separated, a worker may be fearful of calling in sick, or faking it,” Dino Flammia writes.

The 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak that hit Americans hard offers a case study in habits of employees when they are really sick and the results offer lessons learned. More than 44 million adults were sick with the flu that season, according to the Centers For Disease Control. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy  Research, millions went to work while infected, causing an additional 7 million workers to fall ill.

Keeping all that in mind, and knowing that your career path will be dotted with the flu and more, here are the top three key guidelines to calling in sick to work. As a woman leader in the workplace, you will serve as a role model for how to handle unexpected illness as well as long term health. Be prudent about using your sick days (always tell the truth and do NOT fake sick!) and set the standard for what to expect when you're not up to par.

1. Call in early, communicate clearly. 

You do not have to leave a voicemail for your boss at 5 a.m., but do get your absence on the record before 8 a.m. so plans can be put in place for your absence. Unless you are contagious, do not call in sick the day of a big presentation, meeting or important event at work. You may recover, but your reputation might not. For sure before 9 a.m. speak to someone on the phone about your absence and follow the company protocol. Tell the administrative assistant, your boss, your co-worker by phone, voice mail and email if you need to. You do not want anyone looking for you and calling to see where you are. And definitely answer your phone if someone at work calls to check on you.  

Judith Ohikuare writes in Refinery29, "’Generally speaking, employees should use the company-preferred method of calling in sick,’ says Edward Yost, an HR business partner at the Society for Human Resource Management.  ‘Many companies specifically note in their written policy that an employee must speak directly to their supervisors rather than leaving a voicemail or sending an email message. Some companies and managers will prefer a text directly to the supervisor. I would encourage employees to ask their supervisors which method is preferred and comply with that requirement.’"

2. Be vague if you must, but be honest. 

Do not concoct a lie. Do not say you had food poisoning if you do not. Do not create a sprained ankle, doctor appointment, broken toe, minor surgery or procedure if there is none. You will never remember the story you told and you will be branded a liar. If you are overstressed for whatever reason, be honest about it. 

According to Fox Business News, “More companies are trying to destigmatize mental illness and encourage workers to use mental-health days for their original intent. EY, or Ernst & Young, has an initiative called "r u ok?", which encourages workers to check in with each other and offer support to those who might be struggling. American Express Co.'s employee-assistance program offers on-site access to mental-health professionals and free counseling. Prudential Financial Inc. gives employees flexible work arrangements and access to mental-health professionals. Taking time off for mental illness can qualify as a sick day or personal time off, depending on the company's policies.”

3. Offer to make up the work. 

You promised to contribute to the report, do some research, make some calls. You can work on the database from home, you can crawl into bed with your laptop between naps. Add your content to the website, finish your part of the project. Prove that you are reliable even if you are human. And remember not to call in sick too often if you can help it. You will get a reputation for someone who is not hearty or reliable. In the case that you may have recurring symptoms of a long-term illness, be transparent to your team and show that you are doing your best. If you have a serious or chronic illness, talk candidly with your team and your peers to set up a schedule that suits your ability to work in the office or remotely. Trust that others will want to help.

You are not required to power through every health scenario, and you are allowed to have some time off for health concerns. Projecting a sincere wish to be a contributor to the team will afford you considerations of your situation and allow you to take care of yourself as you need. Call in sick or call in sick and tired and know that managing what works best for you and your coworkers is nothing to sneeze at.

This post originally ran at Take The Lead.

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About the Career Expert:

Michele Weldon is the editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.