Calling in Sick? What You Need to Know

The alarm goes off for the fourth time, and you don’t think you’re going to make it out of bed this morning. It’s food poisoning, lack of sleep, stress or all the above. Sometimes, life feels like it’s out to get you and infect you with germs and drama, and all you need is a day or two to reset.

How do you know when to call in sick? When is it appropriate, and what excuses are valid? What excuses could get you in trouble? What’s the proper etiquette? Do you email or call? What work laws apply to your being sick?

You don’t want to risk getting reprimanded or fired, but you need to take the day away. Here’s how to handle calling in sick with answers to these questions and more.


Calling in Sick Excuses

Forty percent of workers play hooky and call in sick when they feel fine. Some employers follow up with employees to check in on their wellness and call their “I’m sick” bluff. Interestingly, many employees who can take a personal or vacation day feel the need to offer other calling in sick excuses like a stomach bug. Some of the most common reasons for staying out include:

  • Going to a doctor’s appointment — 30 percent
  • Not feeling like working — 23 percent
  • Needing TLC — 20 percent
  • Wanting to make up sleep — 15 percent

Some of the craziest excuses include someone who got bitten by a duck, eating too much birthday cake, ozone deflating the car tires and being traumatized by a spider. Yes, employers hear such wacky excuses.

Lack of sleep and feeling ill are no joke — they both do a number on the brain and lead to poor performance. Sixty-seven percent of employers trust you and give you the benefit of the doubt, but 33 percent will check up on you, especially with calling in sick excuses like those.

Taking too much sick leave can come with a price — employers have threatened to fire nearly a quarter of workers for taking too many sick days. The best course of action remains staying honest. That doesn’t mean you should push through the day when you feel off, unfocused and like a work grouch. You’ll risk reprimands either way, but you could end up burning out and needing more time off than you need to take right now.

Ask yourself whether you’d be an asset or an obstacle at work. Etiquette for calling in sick traditionally means getting on the phone as early as possible to let your boss and team know you’ll be out. Try to call in sick the day before if possible, but always state your reason honestly and clearly, with an apology for your absence. Anticipate when you’ll return and if you’ll be available for any emergency questions by phone or email.


Calling in Sick by Email

While traditional etiquette entails phoning in your absence, calling in excuses have increasingly moved toward email for various reasons. Those who play hooky fear a nervous tone of voice may give away their hand, but calling in sick by email can have its advantages when you use it honestly.

Lean toward sending an “I’ll be out sick” email when your voice sounds more like a frog, if your boss checks their voicemail infequently or you need to outline or rebalance priorities with your boss. It’s best to both call and send an email.

When calling in sick by email, be concise, clear and professional. Don’t apologize for infringing on their time. Get right into the matter and avoid vague language. Interpretive word choices and long rambles waste everyone’s time.

Want to write a clear and thoughtful email? Use your subject line to state the purpose of the email and type in or mark the email as “high priority.” Follow the standard email template of opening, body and closing, and in your opening, concisely and directly state that you’ll be out. In the body of your email, address the needs for the day, priorities to be reassigned, whether you’ll be available to address questions and when you anticipate being able to return to work.

Remain concise and clear. Thank the boss for understanding and for their time. State you’ve also left a voicemail or intend to do so, if that’s the case.


Calling in Sick Work Laws

Legally, your boss can ask about the details of why you’re calling in sick with follow-up questions. Most employers will respect your privacy and prefer to give you the benefit of the doubt. It may feel like your employer is prying, but calling in sick work laws do offer some privacy and protection.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers protection for some conditions, such as those that significantly impact your life through mental and physical impairment and substantially affect the five senses. While the ADA doesn’t protect against things like the common cold or a sprain, the law does back you up if you need dialysis or to check into a mental health institution. Your employer can’t push for details beyond what’s job-related and linked with business needs, such as asking for your likely return date or limitations in performing your duties.

When returning to work, your boss might ask how they may best accommodate you as you recover and transition back into your duties.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers as many as 12 weeks of leave without pay after 12 months of employment for companies with more than 50 employees. FMLA covers your absence during a significant medical condition, applicable pregnancy needs and to look after a sick family member.

As long as company policy obeys the law, such as not discriminating, employers can set whatever guidelines and policies they like regarding calling in sick and taking leave. Honesty remains the best policy when taking time off, and many employees forget or feel guilty about taking personal or vacation days for times when they need a reset.

When calling in sick, a phone call should accompany an email for etiquette, but employer preferences and policies differ for each company. Don’t be vague or overly apologetic. Be concise, direct, informative and accommodating in your communications. Use your time off wisely to attend to your needs and health, and return to work refreshed, rather than burning out.


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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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