The Unspoken Rules of Calling in Sick

Calling in sickIt all starts innocently enough-first a sniffle, then a tickle in your throat, then before you know it, you've been knocked out by whatever nasty bug happens to be making the office circuit. But, while your body may be begging you to stay home, those piles of work on your desk (and maybe even your boss) are suggesting otherwise.

So, what do you do? Should you load up on whatever non-drowsy cold medicine is rolling around in the dark recesses of your junk drawer and suck it up, or keep your germs at home and let the bug take its course, sparing your colleagues the same fate? Taking time off is tricky business, especially when it's an unplanned day like a sick day. While there's no guarantee you'll convince your boss and colleagues you're better off at home, there are a few things you can do to help minimize the blowback the next time you're feeling lousy.

Know the Rules (Hint: They're Not in the Employee Handbook)

I'm willing to bet most of us with a standard 9-to-5 have sick days or personal time off as a part of our benefits package. And, while technically, sure, you're allowed to use those days, actually taking them is often strongly discouraged by managers, either explicitly ("I can't believe Susan is taking another sick day"), or implicitly (no one has called in sick since the days of H1N1). On the other hand, let's be honest: No one wants to get what you have.

Here's how to get around this Catch 22: Before you come down with something this season, pay close attention to how your boss and colleagues react to others when they call in sick. Does your boss immediately start bad-mouthing someone as soon as she finds out he or she is staying home? Does she make comments about so-and-so always being out sick? And what's her notification preference? Some bosses (myself included) found it unprofessional for employees to send an email without a follow-up phone call, while others preferred sticking to email in order to avoid a Ferris Bueller-like performance over the phone (trust me, even if you really are sick, it always sounds a bit staged).

Take note of what's earned one colleague sympathetic get well wishes and another snide remarks, and you'll be better prepared to approach your boss when you need a few days in bed.

Take Your Team's Temperature

When you're sick, you know it. But while you may feel like crap (and think you look as bad as you feel), your colleagues probably won't realize it-and may be blindsided when you need to take a day off. Dropping little hints as soon as you start feeling something coming on is a great way to test their reactions. A casual comment that you're feeling a bit run-down is a good start. See how your team responds-are they sympathetic, or do they start freaking out because you all have a deadline in a few days? Make no mistake, I'm not suggesting their reaction should deter you from staying or going home, but knowing how they'll respond when you pack it in will help you better prepare for your absence-not to mention give them a little advanced warning, too.

Keep in mind, though, you can overdo this pretty easily. We've all had that colleague who's always sick, getting sick, or paranoid about getting sick. No one likes to hear someone complain all the time-and if you do, the chances of anyone taking you seriously when you really are under the weather are nil.

Make it Easy

While you can't control how your team will react to your absence, you can control the condition your outstanding work is in before you leave. Of course, getting sick rarely happens on a neat schedule-and that means you essentially always need to be prepared for the "hit by a bus" scenario. I've worked for both large and small companies, but each role has had its own unique quirks that only I knew how to handle, which meant I always had to be prepared for the unlikely event I was hit by a bus (or, er, got the flu).

To do this, I've always kept a list of tasks that required more of my time, caused me more grief, or elicited a few more colorful words than my regular duties, and complied detailed instructions on how to handle such situations. I keep these printed out and clearly labeled in a binder on my desk, visible to everyone, and have a version saved in a shared folder everyone can access. Keep the binder and folder updated, and make sure your team knows it exists. Then, if you do have to hide under the covers for a few days, you'll know your team won't have to pull their hair out trying to figure out how to run that complicated report that drove you to drink before you figured out how to do it. Prepare well in advance and keep your work organized, and you'll take the sting out of covering for you while you're recuperating.

Lastly, and most importantly, once you've prepared for a few days of recovery out of the office, it's time to unplug and focus on getting better. The best thing you can do for your team is get back to your rock star self as soon as possible. Don't you feel better already?

This article was originally published on The Daily Muse. For more on navigating the unspoken rules of your office, check out:
The Right Way to Ask for Help at Work
5 Things You Should Never Share With Your Boss
Are Your Boss' Pet Peeves Preventing Your Promotion?


About the Author: Jennifer Winter is a 14-year veteran in financial services, and a writer and aspiring entrepreneur. Originally from Montana, Jennifer has a great appreciation for the outdoors, and takes advantage of all the Bay Area has to offer whenever she gets the chance. Hailing from Oakland, Jennifer is always up for a glass of wine, great conversation and people watching. You can find her on Twitter @fearlessjenn.

Photo of sick in bed courtesy of Shutterstock.