15 Rules to Follow When Calling in Sick to Work

Sometimes, calling in sick is unavoidable. Follow these rules and all will be fine!

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Employee wondering about calling in sick to work

You’ve woken up with what feels like a frog stuck in your throat, a banging headache, aching bones and a runny nose — all a clear indication that you should stay in bed today and get some rest. Even if you’ve got an ever-growing pile of paperwork waiting for you on your desk at work, sucking it up and seemingly overdosing on your non-drowsy medicine of choice simply won’t do the trick. Especially if it means infecting the rest of the office with your germs.

Taking time off work is tricky business, especially when it’s an unplanned sick day and while there’s no easy way to call in sick to work, these tips will help you beat the blues and minimize the throwback of being absent.

1. Consider your contagiousness

If you’re suffering from a contagious illness like gastroenteritis, the flu, chickenpox or whooping cough, it’s clear that you should stay home. Not just for your personal safety but that of your colleagues, too. You don’t want to wipe out the whole office with your germs now, do you? Any spreadable illness is a red flag to stay home and get yourself better; otherwise, you won’t be able to fully recover if you’re putting yourself under unnecessary stress at work.

2. Think about your efficiency

If you won’t be able to do your job properly, it’s best if you don’t go into the office, especially if you have a long drive ahead. After all, it’s no good staring at a screen with fuzzy eyes and a pounding headache if you’re just going to end up making mistake after mistake. If you haven’t slept well the night before, you’re groggy, or you’re taking medication that induces drowsiness, then your safety and the safety of your colleagues is at risk if you head into work.

3. Consider remote working

If working from home is an option and you’re able to check emails and complete your most important tasks from the comfort of your own bed, offer to do just that. It’ll show that you’re genuinely interested in completing your tasks. You’ll first need to assess whether you are physically able to do this, though, or if it’s actually better you sign off from work and sleep off your sickness.

4. Don't try to sound convincing

Managers can see through fake coughs and exaggerated “sick voices” — and let’s face it: when you are actually ill, you don’t sound too much different than your normal self (unless you have a blocked nose, of course). You don’t need to put on a show, just a heads up that you’ll be out of the office until you’re feeling better.

5. Decide whether you should call or email

Your heart starts pumping, you’ve got a dry throat and your hands are shaking — but why are you so anxious if you are really sick? It’s most likely because you don’t want to disappoint your manager for taking an unexpected day out of the office. And sometimes it’s a little easier to deliver this news via email instead of on the phone.

You should always check with your employer when you begin your job on how you should deal with emergency situations and sick days, and they’ll advise on their preferred method. In most situations, email is just fine and is actually preferred by many employers. For one, it gives them the time they need to shift schedules and resources to cope with your absence, and it also gives them a paper trail. 

6. Keep it brief

Even though you’re not going to work, everyone else is, so they don’t have time to listen to you ramble on about your sickness over the phone or read a lengthy email. Keep it brief and stick to only the necessary information that should be provided.

7. Do it early

Send your manager a quick email or text message as soon as you know that you won’t be going to work. If you have to take a trip to the emergency room, in the meantime, work will of course be the last thing on your mind, so it’s best to get this out of the way as early as possible. You can follow up with a phone call in the morning to ensure they received your message.

8. Follow company protocol

Follow the correct protocol that’s mentioned in your company’s employee handbook or the preferred method of your manager. For some, this means calling a few hours before the start of your shift, while others prefer being notified via email as soon as the first symptoms begin. Some employers will require a doctor’s note if you’re ill for more than a day, while in the UK it’s a legal requirement to obtain a doctor’s note after seven consecutive days of sick leave (including non-working days).

9. Stick to the facts

Unless you’re best buds with your boss (which you most likely aren’t), just stick to the facts instead of giving an elaborate story of how you fell ill, what your symptoms are and what happened. You’ll only end up sounding like you’re lying if you give them a last-minute long-winded story. Communicate only what you need to as clearly and concisely as possible.

10. Apologize for the inconvenience

It’s important to apologize for any inconvenience caused by your absence, as this effectively demonstrates team morale and responsibility. Make sure you end the phone call/email with an appreciative tone and ask if there’s anything you can do while you’re off.

11. Know the unspoken rule

Every office has an unspoken rule when it comes to sick leave, and it usually goes a little something like this: although you have a sick day allowance, it’s generally frowned upon if you take those sick days. In other words, beware of the backlash you’ll receive when you return to work.

12. Make it easy for coworkers

If you keep your work in an accessible folder, your colleagues will be able to pick up where you left off in your absence. If you’re the only person who knows how to do something, make a list of instructions and leave this in a shared folder in a time of emergency. It’s also wise to arrange for a colleague to look after your work while whilst you’re away.

13. Don't fake it

This isn’t a guide to skive off work; you’re an adult and should be past that by now — you’ll have a holiday allowance for that anyway! It’s completely unethical to fake it and you’ll probably get caught out one way or another if you do. Don’t even think about pulling a sickie in order to carry out work for another job — it’s considered gross misconduct and can result in serious legal repercussions.

14. Follow up

When the day is coming to a close, you may be still in recovery mode, but don’t forget your colleagues are still there working! Take the time to follow-up with your boss, even if it’s above and beyond company protocol. Let them know you’re feeling better and should be able to make it in to work tomorrow, or that you’ve made the decision to go to the doctor because your symptoms are worsening, or maybe even that you went to the doctor, and you have a note excusing you for the next few days.

Your employer shouldn’t have to reach out to you to see if you’re feeling better and when you plan to return; you’re a professional, so prove it!

15. Pick up the slack

Remember, quite possibly the most important thing when you return to work is that your coworkers may have had to cover you while you were out. It’s time to turn your productivity level up and pick up the slack. Make sure you catch up on what you missed while you were out and follow up on any issues that need to be resolved.

Perhaps a genuine “thank you” to all those that helped in your absence wouldn’t hurt either. The business didn’t miss a beat in your absence; be sure to recognize those that helped achieve that and do your fair share, and then some, now that you’re back.

Final thoughts

When you’re sick, it’s important to take the time out to recover so you can perform to the best of your abilities. After all, presenteeism (which is essentially going into work while sick) is bad for business — it reduces employee productivity, it increases risk of injury, and it drives up healthcare costs.

Top 5 rules to follow when calling in sick to work infographic

How do you inform your employer that you’re going to be out sick? Join in on the conversation below to let us know if you’ve experienced any difficulties when calling in sick.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on 6 April 2018 and contains contributions by staff writer Shalie Reich.