7 Rules for How to Call in Sick to Work

Updated: Nov. 23, 2020

Feeling feverish but have a looming deadline? Here are questions to ask yourself about whether to call in sick or not—and how to do it.

Woman employee sitting in a desk chair blowing her nose with a tissue.

Are you contagious?

You’ve got a tight deadline and having to stay home in bed is the last thing you need right now. Although you may want to be in the office, your coworkers likely feel differently about having you there. Raeni Ware, director of human resources and team culture at Sonwil Distribution Center in Buffalo, New York, says that from a pure productivity standpoint, if you’re contagious, calling in sick to work is the way to go. “Who knows how many more employees will be faced with missing time from work as a result of the co-worker who refuses to admit that they’re contagious?” For those working with customers, the need to stay at home becomes even more pressing. “Imagine how pleased your customers will be when they find out you’ve just given them the newest strain of influenza,” Ware says. So when are you contagious? Some warning signs include nausea, diarrhea, excessive mucus production, red and crusty eyes, achy joints, and fever. These natural flu remedies can help you feel better.

Man sitting with his hands holding the sides of his head while staring at a laptop.

Can you do your job?

Even if you don’t meet all the warning signs of being contagious, sometimes you feel bad enough that you aren’t able to perform your job well. When you’re sick, quality and attention to detail often suffers and productivity declines. These effects are magnified if you work in an industry that requires concentration, the operation of heavy machinery, or interaction with picky clients. “If the sick employee hasn’t slept well, is groggy, or taking medication that induces drowsiness, the safety of that employee and others is now at risk,” says Ware. By taking the sick day, you are allowing your body time to recover, which will help you get healthy (and productive) faster. Eating these 10 foods when you’re sick can help you get on the mend faster.

Man closing his eyes, reclining on the couch while wearing headphones and listening to music.

What about the “mental health” day?

Some days you feel totally fine physically. But you still might need a day off from the stress of work or a demanding boss. Can you take a “mental health” day? For this type of recovery, save the sick time and take a planned vacation day instead. As Ware notes, “your stressful workload or terrible boss just got more stressful and more terrible because now your work is piling up and your boss thinks you can’t handle it and that you’re unreliable.” That’s not to say don’t take days off for your own emotional well-being—”but schedule it in advance and actually enjoy it!” On the other hand, if your need for a mental health day is more severe—say, you’ve just received devastating personal news and are unable to concentrate at work or stop crying, take that mental health day. And of course, if you need to take care of a sick relative or have a mental health condition, these are protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act and Americans with Disabilities Act and can warrant sick days from work.

Sick woman in bed, talking on her phone and holding a tissue.

Are you *really* sick?

Here’s the interesting thing about sick days. They seem to mostly happen on Fridays and Mondays…. Very curious, isn’t it? Usually when an employee calls in sick, the employee is on the honor system to be truthful about his or her illness. If you attempt to abuse the system, chances are, your boss will know—and chances are, he or she has heard all the calling-in-sick excuses. Says Ware: “More often than not, we know when you call in and you’re not being truthful. Your boss has been managing sick employees for years and he or she can spot a fake call a mile away.” If your boss is on to you, you can expect a reprimand at best—and losing your job at worst. Did you push your luck too often? Here’s how you can make the most out of getting fired.

Top view of a man's hand typing on a laptop computer.

To call or not to call?

Now you know when to call in sick, but what about how to call in sick? There’s a lot of conflicting advice about whether a phone call is necessary when calling in, or if email is sufficient. If you’re unsure, you can always look to your employee handbook, or ask your boss upfront what works best for him or her. If your employee handbook is silent, and you never got around to asking your boss, though, what to do? Ware says in most situations, email is just fine. In fact, for many employers, email is preferable because they often check email before leaving the house in the morning and can get a head start on shifting schedules and resources to account for your absence. Of course, make sure to follow proper email etiquette when sending that note.  And, “If you’re ever in doubt” about how to call in sick, Ware continues, “follow up with a phone call once the day starts. Better safe than sorry!”

Woman touching the bridge of her nose with her left hand and holding up her eyeglasses with her right hand.

Should you offer to work from home?

If you work in an industry that allows you to work from home, this can be a useful option—particularly if you’re working from home to care for a sick child, but you yourself are feeling fine. If working from home isn’t an option, or you are out of paid sick days, another option might be to offer to work a modified schedule to make up for the sick day, for instance, by working a weekend shift or staying a few hours late for the next few days. However, there are times when it’s best just to let yourself rest and recover. Use your judgment in deciding whether you can truly work at home, or would recover faster by staying in bed and sleeping it off. While you’re home, make sure you check out these things you shouldn’t do when you have the flu.

A stack of papers and folders on a desk.

Are you prepared?

Sometimes you can feel an illness coming a mile away. Sometimes it just sneaks up on you. Either way, it’s best to be prepared. Create a binder or folder of key tasks that need to get done in your absence along with clear instructions—and tell your coworkers about it and where to find it. That way, even if you’re unexpectedly out of commission, your team can carry on without you without too much trouble. These are clear signs a cold is coming on.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest