3 Ways To Call In Sick (Plus, Mistakes To Avoid)

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Woman home and sick in bed.


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Michele Weldon10

It’s not like it was in middle school when perfect attendance 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 or call out too often and get the reputation of a slacker, you do want to reserve the right to call in sick

Calling in sick can help 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. If you contract COVID-19 and work in an in-person setting, be sure to get tested before returning to your workplace.

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 workplaces will be under scrutiny and deemed not serious, distracted or even flighty if they are categorized as calling in sick too often.

While there is no legal mandate at the federal level for paid sick leave, several states do require companies to offer employers to provide sick leave to employees so be sure to check your state’s laws to see if you qualify. Some companies lump sick days, vacation days and other days off all together into paid time off without differentiating what is what. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 78 percent of workers have access to paid sick leave benefits. So it is best that you know your company’s 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.

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. And more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic showed how quickly individuals can contract viruses from one another while symptoms lag behind.

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. Before 9 a.m. try to 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, voicemail,email or Slack status if you need to. You do not want anyone looking for you and calling to see where you are. And if you can, 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’s 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. If you’re still up to it, do what you can from home. 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 article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

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.

This post originally ran at Take The Lead with edits from the Fairygodboss team.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for calling in sick? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!