Before You Call Out Sick, Ask Yourself These 5 Questions

woman blowing her nose at work

Adobe Stock

Profile Picture
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
June 21, 2024 at 5:14AM UTC

When you have a headache, a stuffed nose, a fever, a cough or some other mishmash of yucky symptoms, the last thing you want to do is roll out of bed and head into the office. you actually have to? If you’re considering calling out sick at work, ask yourself these five questions to figure out whether your illness warrants a day (or several) at home.

5 Questions to ask yourself when you're thinking of calling out sick.

1. Will you be able to get work done?

Sometimes, you’re so sick that you won’t be productive at work. Presenteeism — showing up at the office physically but not actually accomplishing meaningful work due to illness or other conditions — costs businesses a lot of money, and it’s not helpful for you, either; you’re just going through the motions of being there, rather than being engaged, and you're suffering in the meantime.

2. Are you contagious?

“I don’t want to get other people sick” may sound like a cliche excuse, but it’s a valid one. If you’re contagious, you’ll spread your illness to others and hinder their ability to work — not to mention make them suffer like you are.

3. How often do you call in sick?

If you make a habit of calling in sick because you want another vacation day (or even when your symptoms are borderline), your manager is going to notice. Don’t cry wolf, because when you really are sick, you may get some raised eyebrows, a talking-to or worse.

4. Is it necessary for you to go to work?

You might not be feeling 100%, but perhaps you can still get work done. In a case where you’re capable of doing work but hate the idea of having to commute and spend the day feeling weak and ill (not to mention potentially infecting others), see if it’s possible for you to work remotely. That way, you don’t even need to change out of your pajamas and can have access to all the soup and blankets you need.

5. Are you actually sick?

This is what it all boils down to. If you’re not actually sick, you probably shouldn’t be claiming a sick day. But if you are, that's another story.

What to do when you need to call out.

If and when you do decide it’s time to call in sick at work, here are some guidelines for doing so in the most professional way possible:

• Call early. 

At least an hour before you’re supposed to show up to the office is ideal. That way, your manager can account for your absence and plan accordingly.

• Offer to do some work from home or suggest a timeline for making up missed tasks.

If it’s feasible, suggest responsibilities that you can take care of while you’re ill. If it’s not, let your manager know when you’ll be able to make up the missed work. You should also do your best to be reachable (unless you really, really need sleep) by phone or email during your sick day.

• Have a script ready.

Be succinct and honest — no need to disclose your symptoms, unless it’s really necessary to. In other words, don’t overshare. (Check out these examples of what to say.) You can also opt to send an email instead, but it’s worth asking your boss for her preference before you get sick.


How do you survive being sick at work?

If you need to go to the office when you’re sick, the bottom line is that you need to protect yourself and protect others. Spend as little time around your colleagues as possible. If you have an office, this shouldn’t be too difficult, but if you’re in an open-office plan or cubicle, it may be tricky. Avoid handing papers or other items to your coworkers without washing your hands first, and try to keep your distance.

Also, remember to take it easy. Don’t put pressure on yourself to work hard, and try to take breaks if you can. Even going for a walk around the block can be helpful. If you’re so sick that it’s noticeable, your boss may send you home.

Can an employer make you stay at work if you are sick?

There is no federal law mandating that employers provide sick leave to their employees. That means employers can establish rules regarding whether and when you can miss work or leave early because you’re sick. And if you’re an at-will employee, meaning your employer can fire you for any reason, you can be fired for missing work due to your sickness — unless you’re taking unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles certain workers to time off for caregiver responsibilities or medical reasons.

Some cities and states do have laws entitling workers to paid or unpaid sick leave. For example, New York City requires employers with five or more employees to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave at their regular hourly rate and no less than minimum wage. Employers with fewer than five employees must provide up to 40 hours of unpaid sick leave per year. Regardless of the laws, many employers do offer a certain number of paid sick days.

Should you stay off work with a cold?

Anyone who’s had a cold — which is pretty much everyone — knows how miserable it can be. And given the frequency with which people get colds and the number of different versions of the common cold out there, it can be difficult to know when it’s reasonable to stay away from the office when you have one. 

Colds are contagious, so if you have certain symptoms such as a headache or fever, it’s best to stay home. Plus, many people think they have colds when it’s actually something more severe, such as strep throat or the flu, both of which are also highly contagious. (Remember to visit your doctor if your symptoms are severe or get progressively worse, not better.) If your cold symptoms are mild, use your judgment — if you can do work and there’s little risk of infecting others, then it’s fine to head into the office. 

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up! 

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always