How (and why) to call in sick — even when you’re working from home

May 23, 2022 - 20 min read

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Should you take a sick day?

How to call in sick to work

Make sure to follow up

What to say when calling in sick

How not to call in sick at work

How to call in when you need a mental health day

Your health is an important asset for your life, personal and professional. Somehow, though, it's too easy to take it for granted or deprioritize health issues.

So often we're somewhere between sick and healthy — it's not always obvious. I might not feel like running a 10k or going to a social gathering, but does that mean I'm too sick to work?

When we all worked together in person, we all probably had opportunity to wish that a co-worker had stayed home rather than bringing their coughing and sneezing into the office. At the same time, many of us probably dragged ourselves in to avoid missing an important meeting or face-time with a manager.

Now with so many of us working remotely, it's even harder to know when and how to call in sick. Some people stop everything at the first signs of a serious cold, stomach bug, or other illness. That might seem extreme, but it is a good idea to call in sick and take a pause to rest and regroup before you become seriously ill, especially those who are working in-person. This is even more true in light of the pandemic when we know that extra care can reduce the spread of disease.

Beyond sickness, sometimes your mind and body simply need a break from responsibilities. 

Whether for a sick day or to enjoy a day off—workers often find it difficult to inform their managers that they need sick leave.

According to a 2020 Zippia survey, 52% of participants claimed to have faked an illness to enjoy a day off from work. Another survey had 28% of respondents who felt the need to make up a story despite qualifying for time off. 

Employees tend to feel uncomfortable at the thought of missing work. This may be because of viewing the illness as too minor for time away. Other times, workers fear that supervisors will consider the illness/mental break a mere excuse to get out of work. While these are valid worries, a needed break from work doesn’t have to be a nerve-wracking experience.

Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), workers can take up to four months off if they meet all of the requirements specified in the law. Employers and states may decide whether or not medical leave is paid although some states, such as New York, California, and Maryland, mandate paid leave for workers.

While the FMLA covers serious conditions as well as giving birth and caring for a new child, most of the time, your health needs will be about calling in sick for a day or two.

This deep-dive will explore the types of breaks you need from work, or if a break is even necessary. You’ll learn how to call in sick, and the dos and don’ts when applying for a leave. For employees who have applied for sick time off, this guide will examine the steps to take when calling in sick.

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Should you take a sick day?

Deciding to take time off work can be difficult. You may have pressing deadlines or team members that depend on your input. Perhaps you’re also unsure of company policy towards taking non-sick days off. Research shows that 9 in 10 employees report going in to work sick— around 54% do so because they have too much work to do. 

Despite having legitimate concerns, presenteeism often does more harm than good. Workers will often overextend themselves. This often leads to lower quality work than they would have produced at full health.

If you’re struggling to decide whether or not to call in sick, the following questions can be a useful guide.

Are you coming down with something?

When you are showing the telltale signs of an illness, taking the day off to rest is an appropriate step to take. This distance from work is important. It is especially so where the symptoms on display might be contagious to others. It isn't just about your personal decision to "push through" or not.

Other times, your symptoms (such as uncontrollable coughing or vomiting) may be disruptive to colleagues. These symptoms require time away from the office even if you feel fine.

In certain cases, you may not feel particularly sick, but your energy or mental capacity to work can feel low. These are legitimate reasons to take time off work.

Is remote work possible?

For those who have some in-person work, there are times when social and personal interactions at work can feel too much to bear. Waking up with the thought of commuting to and from work today can be overwhelming. An in-person meeting might feel like a personal affront or simply exhausting.

In these cases, consider whether your work can be done remotely for a day or two. Reach out to your supervisor with the request and a proposal for how you will handle crucial work from home.  Applying for a remote day can be a welcome substitute for sick leave.

In many organizations today, working remotely is not a big deal so it might require nothing more than dropping an email to your team to let them know. Follow the policies and norms of your team, and be clear about whether you are taking a day off or just working remotely. 

Working from home is also suitable when you come down with a mild illness, but can complete your tasks for the day.

Do you need a mental health day?

If you are feeling burned out and need time to relax—a mental health day can be the most appropriate step to take.

A personal day off can hit the reset button necessary to recharge energy levels. Some company policies permit such days off without specified reasons. Where this does not apply—sick or leftover vacation days are other options.

Not sure what to do on a mental health day? These tips will help you rest and bolster your well-being just like a bowl of chicken noodle soup might help if you have a cold.

If any of these feelings of exhaustion, burnout, or cynicism apply to you, taking the required time away from work is in your best interest. This is especially true when you’re not in the habit of skipping work. If you find that you are frequently skipping work or experiencing these symptoms, it's time to re-evaluate whether your role, organization, and work fit your needs, skills, and personal values.

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How to call in sick to work

Calling in sick and asking for time off work can be in your best personal and professional interest. But taking time away from work doesn't automatically erase duties you were originally assigned to execute.

Work may be re-assigned, suspended, or delayed pending your return. This makes it very important to properly plan and communicate activities that need to be addressed when you are missing work.

The following steps are a useful guide for calling in sick to work:  

Choose the correct communication channels

Communication is crucial when calling in sick. If you notice signs of burnout or feel under the weather, the employee handbook can direct your next steps and internal communication policies. The handbook may lay out the sick leave policy, whom to speak with, and how the process should be carried out.

In most companies, this may require informing your supervisor that you’ll be out for some time. Other organizations provide online portals. Here, employees input sick days in line with administrative requirements.

It’s important to follow company stipulations when taking time off work. This can help with redistributing tasks and keeping the organization running smoothly.

Inform managers quickly

When taking time off work, it’s essential and courteous for your employer to know on time. Where possible — a day’s notice, or communicating early in the day can be a big help.

One thing to avoid when sharing your needs is over-explaining. Your employer doesn’t need to know every symptom or every move you’ve made to feel better. Simply letting them know you aren’t feeling your best should suffice. 

In cases where you are too weak to communicate with your manager, a family member can inform work on your behalf.

Put teammates in the loop

Besides your employer, team members should also be notified of your time away from work. This makes sure they can work around your absence and can plan better for re-distributing the workload.

It’s very important to keep teammates clued in if group projects or team efforts are common. 

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Make sure to follow up

In some companies, the sick leave policy stipulates proper documentation for proof of absence. This means taking care to provide a doctor’s note, evidence of a doctor’s appointment, or other requirements when planning a return to work.

This should not apply when time off work is to recover from burnout, or for a mental health day.

Prepare for a return to work

Because time off work is temporary, it is important to make provisions for your return to the office. This means letting team members know of pending tasks. It is also informing them of needed work processes, etc.

Proper planning will permit a seamless transition during your absence. It will also ensure a smooth return to work. This is even more important, and requires some thought, when you are taking leave rather than a day or two.

As a bonus, throughout your medical leave/mental health rest—be careful using social media. The last thing you want is for your employer or teammates to watch your posts at a time set aside for rest.

Can you call in sick via text message?

While it is common to call in sick, this process doesn’t have to follow a strict format. In some organizations, a supervisor may be told of a sick day off via text message or email. A Zippa survey showed that 25% of worker respondents relay news of their sick leaves via text.

The approach to take may depend on the relationship between manager and employee. Where it is normal to communicate via text, this mode may be chosen. Calls are preferred where this is the typical method of speaking.

What to say when calling in sick

Whether illness or fatigue has led to sick leave, there’s a responsibility to inform superiors about your absence.

There are different scenarios for how to convey the information and make sure the message is passed along to everyone who needs to be informed. Some types of work and organizations might have very formal requirements.

It's worth noting that how you call in sick also depends on your reputation as an employee and coworker and your history and relationships with others. If you have a history of underperformance or not being fully responsible or truthful, your manager may give your request more scrutiny. Team members may be less helpful about picking up tasks for you. This is just one more reason to make sure you invest in building positive working relationships — you never know when an unexpected illness will require you to lean on others.

Depending on your reasons, these are tips to follow when telling a supervisor about your time off:

How to call in sick at a new job

For new employees, first impressions are important when interacting with colleagues and supervisors. 

If you’re on the first day or week at a new job, it can feel embarrassing to ask for a sick day off. You don’t want to appear to struggle with the workload, or worse—come off as a slacker.

But while it can be difficult to make requests, your health is a priority for your well-being. Without being in top shape, your performance at work can suffer. 

If you have a chronic health condition that will affect your ability to work more frequently, consider how much of your health status you feel comfortable revealing to the HR department or your new manager proactively.

For non-chronic conditions, explain your limitations and concerns about passing illness to other workers. This should be done early so replacements can be found to take on your critical duties. Where possible, give an estimate for a return to work. If you feel up to it, you may check in with your manager to see how the team can work around your absence. 

Showing this consideration can be endearing to colleagues and superiors. This time away should be used to rest and build up strength for a return to work.

How to call in sick when working remotely

When working from home, the lines between a work-life balance tend to blur. Here, the temptation to push through an illness, mental fatigue, or burnout is always present. 

However, the last thing your body needs is exertion in delicate moments. Calling in sick from home may follow the same process as an in-office request. Your supervisor or other stipulated workers should be informed.

This communication can be made via phone call, text, or email—depending on what your manager has established as preferred methods of communication. If possible, you can share upcoming tasks and other expectations. This permits planning around your sick time off.

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How not to call in sick at work

While there are set ways to call in sick at work, there are unspoken mistakes to avoid in your leave application. These include:

Neglecting your well-being

It’s good practice to inform managers and employers about your sick leave early in the day or week. However, this should not be done in a way that harms your health.

Managers should be informed by the official start of the workday, between 8-9 am. This does not require setting an alarm for 5 am to share health updates with superiors. If you go to bed feeling poorly, it is reasonable to wait until the next morning to determine whether or not you'll be able to work. The exception is if you do shift work that is critical and difficult to cover at the last minute. If that is the case, follow the guidance of your organization and make a decision earlier.

Going into detail about your leave

When informing a supervisor about your day off, it’s advisable to keep things brief. Over-explaining the need for time off, or your every symptom can be too much information.

Instead, be honest but maintain vagueness about the nature of your illness unless more explanation is requested. This is especially where sickness is fronted for a mental health day. Go straight to the point to save time. A too-elaborate story can arouse both irritation and suspicion.

Offering to work regardless of illness

It’s easy for guilt to creep in when asking for a day off. But with your physical or mental health at stake, you should avoid over-extension.

Steer clear of offering to work while you are also sick unless you feel ok and are staying home primarily for your comfort. When you're ill you need to build back strength. Where possible, avoid work-related tasks as the body and mind rest and heal. Of course, use your best judgment. And, if you find that you are taking sick days all the time, it's worth checking in with both a health care practitioner and your own values and motivations to get to the root cause.

How to call in when you need a mental health day

Under the FMLA, workers are permitted mental health days to care for a family member or to manage personal issues. Mental health days may be classified under "employee episodic conditions." These conditions make up the most common FMLA leave requests.

Because FMLA is restricted to employers with above 50 workers, there's a chance your organization may not provide for this leave. Covered or uncovered employees can use the following guidelines when applying for mental health days away from work:

  • Plan whom to speak with and what to say beforehand
  • Ensure that the conversation takes place on time
  • Keep your discussion short and to the point
  • If you're uncomfortable asking for a mental health day, another relevant reason should be given. This applies where mental health days are not provided for.

Preparing to take sick time off

Once your supervisor is aware of your time off, there are next steps to take to ensure a hitch-free sick leave.

As discussed, your colleagues should be brought into the loop. Where you lead a team, are engaged in a pending project, or are otherwise on a deadline—your teammates should be brought up to speed to plan around your leave.

Once done, your automatic email response/recorded phone message should reflect your absence. This will keep clients and other stakeholders informed of your time away.

Most importantly, your time away should be spent resting and refreshing your body and mind for a return to work.

Take advantage of your sick days

Commitment to work is a great trait, but it should not come at the expense of your well-being.

Because you're only human, it's normal to have days when you aren't operating at full capacity. Where illness or mental difficulties come up, taking advantage of some time off work can improve your welfare.

Medical/mental leave should take place in line with workplace policies and norms. Likewise, the needs of your colleagues and supervisors should be important considerations. Get started today

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Published May 23, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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