Chronic Communication at Work: How to Talk About Calling out Sick

The alarm clock goes off and as you’re hitting that snooze button for the first time, you also realize the day is going to be a bad one.  In fact, so bad that you don’t think you are going to be able to function at work today.


Just like that day last week when you called out sick.  Or was it two days last week?


An occasional sick day or two, or a mental health day, is one thing.  But what if your chronic condition results in frequent sick days?  Making that call might leave you feeling embarrassed.  Or fearing how the news will be received by your boss.  Or maybe concerned that you will be stigmatized in some way by your coworkers.


But on the other hand, you’re sick and you can’t make it into work?


So how do you handle these conversations?


First, be proactive.  Let your manager know you may need to take sick days and why, in as much or as little detail as you are comfortable with.  Occasional, and especially frequent, absences, shouldn’t be a surprise.  Bosses don’t like surprises.  Something like, “I have a chronic condition.  I have good days and I have some bad days.  I just need for you to know that I may not be able to come into work on the bad days.”


Discuss the options.  Involve your boss in strategizing on how to best manage workload on the days you may not be at work.  Brainstorm together.  Half day, work at home, or other accommodations.  Keep it positive.  “I know you are counting on me and I want to be as productive as possible.  So when I am having a bad day, I would like to talk to you about how I can try to avoid leaving you shorthanded.”  Notice “try” to avoid, not promise to avoid.  You can’t control everything.


Assess the fallout.  After an absence – especially if you have had more than one recent absence – you may have some fences to mend.  This might include initiating a discussion with your boss, or sending an email, regarding where you are in your work.  Inform him/her of what you are on top of (start here) as well as any loose ends.  Start with, “I want to touch base and let you know where I am with my projects right now.  Here’s a quick status report.”   Or, “I hope my absence didn’t leave you too shorthanded yesterday.  Is there anything I need to focus on first today?”   You might also want to consider offering to provide a note from your doctor.


Be selective.  About how much you disclose about your reason for being absent.  Use your judgment here.  But keep in mind that, where management is concerned, the less that’s communicated, the more that’s left to the imagination.  And potentially, misinterpretation.


Promote harmony with coworkers.  Look for ways you can reasonably help a coworker who may need a hand.  Like covering for them if they need some time off, or finding a task you can complete for them when they call out sick.  Or at least offer.  “I see you’re going to be out on Friday.  Are there any loose ends I can pick up for you while you’re out?”


Don’t expect a happy homecoming.   While some coworkers may be supportive, others may not be.  If you receive hostile looks or comments, or get the silent treatment, don’t be surprised.   Again, the control word.  We can’t control how other people think, feel or behave.  You’re doing the best you can.


Be familiar with policy.  Refer to your employee handbook or talk to the HR department to make sure you are fully aware of the policy at your company regarding time off for illness.   If you are nearing the end of your annual sick time, or suspect you will be soon, this will be another conversation to have with management.


If you can’t make it in to work, you can’t make it in.  Keep the line of communication between you and your manager open, positive, and collaborative.