Calling in sick can be a source of anxiety for workers who wonder when to call, what to say and how to say it. They may question if they are truly sick enough to take the day off or worry it will reflect poorly on them to miss a shift.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also changed how employers and employees alike approach sick leave. Coming to work with a cough or a fever may not be merely inconsiderate, it could be dangerous. What’s more, sick leave policies at some companies have shifted to allow time off for mental health needs or to care for sick family members.
“It’s become a new landscape for every business out there,” says Amy Mosher, chief people officer for isolved, a company providing human capital management software.
To navigate this new normal, keep reading for answers to all the following common questions and concerns about calling in sick.
— What to say when calling in sick.
— What are good excuses for missing work?
— Can I call in sick if I’m a remote worker?
— How should you call in sick? Can you text in sick?
— What your boss is allowed to ask.
— Can you get fired for calling in sick?
— Can your boss force you to go home if you’re sick?
— How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting sick leave?
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What to Say When Calling in Sick
Calling in sick doesn’t need to be a drawn-out affair. Some workers may be inclined to dance around the issue by saying they will try to make it in later if they feel better, knowing the chances of that are unlikely. It’s better to simply say you won’t be in and leave it at that.
“You don’t have to get into (many) details,” says Debora Roland, vice president of human resources for CareerArc, a social recruiting platform. It is good form to explain why you won’t be coming in, but you don’t necessarily have to share any specifics of your illness.
It’s also a mistake to provide lengthy explanations as to why you can’t come to work. That could actually give the impression you are exaggerating or lying.
However, if you are sick for a COVID-related reason, it makes sense to tell your employer. Some companies have enhanced sick leave policies that may apply in these situations. Plus, if you’ll potentially be out for an extended period, it’s best to let your boss know as soon as possible.
What Are Good Excuses for Missing Work?
Ideally, you would check to see if your company has a sick policy prior to falling ill. However, in absence of that, a good rule of thumb pre-pandemic was always to stay home if you thought you were contagious, says Amanda Augustine, a career expert with resume writing service TopResume. “An employer would not want to have you spread your germs,” she says. Vomiting is another clear sign that it is time to stay home.
Now, in the midst of a pandemic, employees may stay home for much less. At isolved, for instance, the number of people accessing sick time has increased 65% compared to last year, according to Mosher.
A cough or scratchy throat could lead people to call in sick, and employers may encourage workers to exercise an abundance of caution and stay home in these instances.
However, faking an illness to stay home or avoid work might not be in your best interest. Taking days off unnecessarily could exhaust your employer’s goodwill and put your job in jeopardy. “Employees have to be mindful that they are out for a legitimate reason,” says Domenique Camacho Moran, partner and head of the labor and employment practice at law firm Farrell Fritz in New York.
Rules may be different for when it comes to caring for sick family members or children who are remote learning, but again, many companies have relaxed their policies to accommodate the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. Check with your human resources office or employee handbook to see if your company has a formal policy.
Can You Call in Sick if You’re a Remote Worker?
For those working remotely, the decision to call in sick may not be as clear-cut. “What we’re finding is that remote employees work sick,” Mosher says. She adds that workers with a cough may choose not to go to the office for the day but still work from home.
While some people may be powering through an illness to work from home, Augustine doesn’t think employees should feel obligated to do so. “Just because you work remotely does not mean you should forfeit the use of your sick days when you need them,” she says. “If you’re sick, you’re sick.”
It makes sense to skip work if you don’t think you’ll be productive. There is little benefit for you or your boss if you aren’t able to concentrate or get work done.
How Should You Call in Sick? Can You Text in Sick?
While we refer to the practice as calling in sick, text or email is perfectly acceptable in many work environments.
“When it comes to the best mode of communication for delivering such a message, consider your relationship with your boss,” Augustine says. If you normally text with your employer, texting in sick would be acceptable. However, if communication is normally done via the phone, sending a text might not be appropriate. Also, don’t ask someone else in the office to pass along your message.
However you deliver the message, make sure you are providing your employer with as much notice as possible. “Calling in at 9:30 to say you’re not coming in at 9 is not proper,” Camacho Moran says.
What Your Boss Is Allowed to Ask
Your boss’s natural reaction may be to ask what is wrong, but you are under no obligation to provide details of your illness. Many times, employers ask partly out of concern for your well-being and partly to gauge how long they will need to cover your shifts or workload. To address the latter concern, let your employer know when you expect to return, if possible.
Depending on your company’s policy, you may be required to provide a doctor’s note confirming you are ill should you be absent for several days. Roland says many businesses use a three-day rule and request verification from a doctor after three days’ absence.
“We made a decision (at isolved) that we would request a doctor’s note for (an absence of) 5 days or more,” Mosher says. Employees can also provide proof of a positive COVID-19 test. Or, those who are caring for a family member who is sick with COVID can sign an affidavit stating that.
If you need to take an extended medical leave, you may have to fill out paperwork to qualify for the job protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act, more commonly known as FMLA. However, even in these situations, medical information should be kept confidential by your company’s HR department and does not need to be disclosed to a supervisor or co-workers.
Can You Get Fired for Calling in Sick?
Workers who belong to a union may have some added protections, but for most people, the answer depends on your state laws.
“If you’re working in a state with at-will employees, they can fire you for anything that’s not illegal,” Augustine says. That means that unless you qualify for legal protections under FMLA or the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is nothing stopping an employer from firing you for calling in sick.
Employers may not be inclined to fire an otherwise good worker who calls in sick occasionally, but if they feel as though you are faking an illness, they may not be so understanding. “Abusing sick leave can lead to termination,” Camacho Moran says.
Can Your Boss Force You to Go Home if You’re Sick?
Absolutely, Roland says.
If your boss thinks you are ill, he or she can send you home. In which case, you may have been better off calling in sick to begin with. “It’s just proper etiquette to stay home and take care of yourself,” according to Roland.
How Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Affecting Sick Leave?
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many companies making immediate changes to their sick leave policies, such as additional days off or paid leave for those staying home with sick relatives. However, it could have ramifications in the future as well.
“I anticipate for years and years to come, we’ll be sensitive to coughing,” Mosher says. That may lead employers to be more willing to allow workers to call in sick. Now that remote work has proven successful for many jobs, companies may also be open to offering that option to workers who may be under the weather but not so ill that they need a day off.
For now, though, employers may be more understanding of workers calling in sick, and employees may be more aware of the need to stay home when they don’t feel well. If you need to call in sick, don’t be afraid to do so. Just be mindful of giving your boss as much notice as possible and follow any company policies regarding documentation.
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Update 10/18/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.