A runny nose, migraine, dry cough: You sound like you're too sick to go into work. But how do you convince your manager that you (and the rest of the office) are better off if you stay home when you call in sick to work?
While about 78 percent of U.S. employees (excluding federal, military and agricultural workers) have access to paid sick leave, according to a March 20120 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, up to three million U.S. employees work while sick each week, according to a 2016 Health Services Research study out of Cornell University. Some go in because they don't have any paid sick day benefits, while others succumb to work cultures that reward those who "power through" and quietly (barring the coughing and sneezing) suffer at their desks.
And since many workplaces have shifted to a hybrid or remote setup, employees are taking less sick days than ever. A survey from OnePoll found that two in three U.S. workers are less likely to take off for minor illnesses while working from home, with 70 percent saying they worked while sick during the pandemic.
Sick leave is time off from work that workers can use to stay home and address their health (both physical and mental) and safety needs without losing pay — though some workers will use their sick days for days like when they have an interview for a new job, too. You and your coworkers should use sick days when you really need them.
In some countries, paid sick leave is a statutory requirement in many nations. In France, for example, sick leave is linked to social security. Contrary to popular belief, however, sick days are not mandatory in the U.S. — while many employers do offer paid time off for sick leave, there is no legal requirement that employers must give their employees any sick leave.
In response to COVID-19 however, many employers have modified their sick leave policies to be more accommodating and give employees additional time to recover or care for a loved one. A handful of states have also implemented programs that require employers to grant employees paid leave if they need to take off for COVID-related reasons.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average number of paid sick days is eight for any employee of at least a year. That number increases to 11 for an employee with 25 years of experience with the same company. Of course, sick days vary by company and even state, however. In California, for example, employees will earn at least one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked under the accrual method, which ends up as a little more than eight days a year for a full-time worker.
That said, according to a 2016 Wakefield Research survey, 69 percent of working Americans don’t take sick days, even when they’re legitimately ill and offered PTO for it. And, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 40 percent of private-sector workers and 80 percent of low-wage workers don’t receive any paid sick leave at all.
Why? Well, nearly a quarter of adults have been fired or threatened with losing their jobs for taking time off to recover from being sick or caring for a sick family member, according to Family Values at Work.
Essentially, yes, you can be fired for calling in sick. If your absences are not protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (which entitles you to take unpaid, job-protected leaves of absence for situations like childbirth or "serious" health conditions), the Americans With Disabilities Act or a state-level paid sick leave law, you can be fired.
It's important to note that the definition of "serious" is often debatable — while the FMLA won't cover your typical cold, if your cold evolves into a hospitalizing case of pneumonia, that's serious.
Also, if you work in one of these 14 states or the District of Columbia, which all require employers to provide sick leave to their employees, you may be covered:
Some of the aforementioned states only require small employers to provide at least unpaid instead of paid sick leave, and accrual rates vary between the states. One consistent requirement among each state’s sick leave is that employers must legally allow employees like working parents to use their sick leave to care for family, although the definition of a family member can also vary from state to state. Likewise, employers in all of these states must notify their employees of their right to take sick leave, as well as the terms under which it may be used.
Using those sick days can be intimidating. So what can you say when you call or send a sick day email?
If you have to call in sick, you want to make sure you do so professionally. Here's what to say when you're calling in sick, whether you work for a formal company or have a casual relationship with your manager.
When you're actually sick, you should definitely take the day off. Briefly explain what's going on without oversharing the details. You don't need to tell your manager that you've been throwing up all mornings. You do need to let them know that you're genuinely too sick to come to the office without risking infecting the rest of the team, however.
Try saying: "I woke up today feeling pretty badly, and I think I’m coming down with a fever. I don’t want it to get worse, and I’m worried about infecting my colleagues. I think it’s best for me to take the day off and rest up so I can come back tomorrow. Thanks for your understanding, and I’ll see you tomorrow."
Sometimes, it's OK to use a sick day when you're not sick. When you have a job interview and want to use a sick day for it, you need to keep your call or email vague and brief. You don't want to start lying about a fever or head cold, and come back to the office the next day looking, feeling and acting great.
Try saying: "I am not feeling well and I will be taking the day to rest. I'll hopefully be feeling recharged by tomorrow."
If you have a doctor's appointment, whether you're sick or just have an annual checkup, let your manager know ahead of time. Prepare your day around the appointment, delegate any work that you're going to miss and take care of projects with which your appointment would have otherwise interfered. Let your manager know as soon as you can, preferably days or weeks in advance when you made the appointment, that you'll be out for the day or a few hours, but that you've handled everything already.
Try Saying: "I let you know a few weeks ago that I have a doctor's appointment on the schedule for Thursday, so I'll be out of the office then. I've filed the documents due EOD early so you're not waiting on me, and I've kept my assistant abreast of what's going on with the campaign in case anyone needs urgent help while I'm out."
No one is prepared for the unexpected — but sometimes life just happens. If you need to take a sick day to deal with something like a loved one's emergency, a surprise flood in your bathroom, a fender bender, or worse, share what's going on and explain why your call or email is so last minute.
Try Saying: "I apologize for any inconvenience, but X happened this morning and I need to be here for Y. I will be in as soon as possible today or pick up tomorrow. I don't have any deadlines today, but I have Z going on, and will work on that later/tomorrow." Or, "I have Z due today — is there any way we can push the deadline back a day? I appreciate your understanding."
Now that you better understand unpaid or paid time off for sick leave, be sure to check out your state's laws and know your rights. Let your manager know that you'll be exercising that right, but make sure you give them as much notice as possible and try your best to delegate or, at least, address any work that you'll be missing.
According to the World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder. As of currently, about 450 million people currently suffer, which means that mental disorders are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. You're not alone in needing a mental health day — in fact, you've probably had coworkers who've done the same. But employers don’t always treat mental and physical health in the same ways.
Try saying: "I need to take a personal day to recharge so I can come back feeling revitalized and productive."
You shouldn't be coming into work hungover, or really getting hung over during the work week, in the first place. But the fact is that sometimes it happens. It may have even been a result of a work happy hour or an office holiday party (though calling out sick after a company party is a no-no). If you really cannot make it into the office after a night of drinking, you may need to take a sick day — but absolutely do not make it a habit.
Don't mention the hangover, but don't lie about the hangover. Just be brief.
Try saying: "I'm not feeling well and I need to use a sick day. I'll be back in or online tomorrow."
Like sick leave, there’s no federal law in the U.S. requiring companies to offer funeral leave or paid or unpaid leave specifically for bereavement. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral. This type of benefit is generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee's representative).”
While there’s no federal bereavement leave law, some companies do have a bereavement leave policy. If you've used up all of your bereavement leave, however, you may need to take a sick day to grieve longer — or even week down the line — if it's needed. You should, however, plan your sick day ahead if you know you need a day to grieve.
Try saying: "I'm taking a sick day to grieve so I can come back to the office tomorrow with my full concentration. I've already delegated today's work to my assistant, and I have turned in all of my assignments early."
Again, each state with a sick leave law requires employers to legally allow employees like working parents to use their sick leave to care for sick family members.
Try saying: "My son fell ill this morning and I need to take him to the doctor. I will be back in the office as early as I can, or I'll have to use a sick day and come back tomorrow. I appreciate your understanding."
When you're out of vacation days but you need to extend your time off for one reason or another (a delayed flight, for example), you might need to tap into your sick days (assuming you have them and they're separate). Make sure your reasoning is legitimate if you're calling in sick at the last minute. Otherwise, talk to your manager ahead of time to ask about extending your vacation with a sick day.
Try saying: "X, Y or Z happened so I cannot make it back in time to get to the office or get online. I will have to use one of my sick days today and come back to work tomorrow. I'm sending an email to my colleagues to let them know of the situation so they can hold down the fort while I'm out today."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist for a gamut of both online and print publications, as well as an adventure aficionado and travel blogger at HerReport.org. She covers all things women's empowerment — from navigating the workplace to navigating the world. She writes about everything from gender issues in the workforce to gender issues all across the globe.