Chronic Communication at Work: When I call in sick, do I have to explain why? 

Tony has a chronic condition that causes him to have to call in sick once in awhile.  He avoids taking sick time, even going to work on days when he would rather stay at home and rest.  He prides himself on his attendance record.


Tony also wants to keep his chronic condition to himself and not tell his boss or co-workers about it.  For a couple of reasons.  One, he doesn’t want to be stigmatized as being “sick” and not able to hold up his end.  Secondly, he has symptoms that someone who is not medically trained would most likely not understand, and would be embarrassing to describe.


However, Tony works in an organization where employees are relatively open with each other.  This includes discussing with the boss why they are calling in sick.  Tony is aware of this because often, when a co-worker calls takes a sick day, his boss will say something to other team members like, “Sandy thinks she has a touch of a stomach virus.  So she won’t make it in today.”



How Much is Too Much?


Tony wants to be considered part of the team, and not viewed as holding back on information.  He worries that by not telling his boss why he is calling in sick, his boss might suspect Tony is just taking a day off, or job hunting.  He is also concerned that being evasive might raise suspicions that he could be very ill.


Today, Tony is having one of those days when he is going to need to take a sick day.  He’s debating on what he can say to his boss to protect his own privacy, but not be viewed as secretive.  And he doesn’t want to tell an untruth.


Have you ever been in this situation?  Here are some ideas for how to handle it.


First, no need to feel guilty.  It’s great to have a solid work ethic and to do your best to get to your job every day.  However, your sick days are yours to take.  And your health has to be your priority.  So as you consider what you want to say to your boss, don’t get so caught up in feelings of guilt that you can’t make an objective decision.  Everybody gets sick.


You have a right to your privacy.  Keep this in mind as you talk about your sick day with your boss.  Even in a culture of openness.  Place your own needs first.


However, your boss can ask why.  Yes, it is generally accepted that your boss can ask what’s keeping you in sick.  As well as when you expect to return.  And keep in mind that your boss may be concerned about you.  Hopefully, he/she respects your privacy and does not press for details beyond the basics.


It’s okay to be selective.   Don’t pressure yourself to provide a full medical history with a list of symptoms.  You can pick and choose what you want to discuss with your boss about your health and what you don’t want to discuss.  That is your right.  The stakes, in terms of what you disclose, may be higher for you, as someone living with a chronic condition, than your co-workers.


Choose one or two symptoms.  Here’s a workaround: You might consider choosing one or two symptoms that you feel comfortable mentioning and that your boss will be more likely to understand.  This will allow you to satisfy the expectation of indicating why you are calling in sick while also protecting your privacy.  Again, not made-up symptoms but those that you are comfortable discussing.  Also, keep in mind that simply saying, “I’m feeling a little under the weather today” may be sufficient.


You can set limits.  If your boss asks questions you consider intrusive, you can say something like, “This is really uncomfortable for me to talk about.  I hope you will understand.  But I should be back on ___________.”  (If you have a condition protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, be aware of your rights to take time off as needed and for other accommodations.)


You and your boss.  When you call in sick, your boss may have a few questions.  You can be cooperative while still disclosing what you’re comfortable with disclosing.  You’re in charge of the information flow.