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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

3 Steps to Taking a Guilt-Free (and Email-Free!) Sick Day

woman home sick

I don’t know one person who’s gotten into trouble from calling in to work sick, but that doesn’t make the prospect any less worrisome.

Guilt, it seems, is a problem a lot of us experience when we tell our manager that we’re not well enough to sit at a desk. Even when I know it’s in my best interest (not to mention my colleagues’), I can’t avoid feeling slightly guilty and even paranoid, anxious about how my boss is going to handle the news.

It’s a relatable issue—even though it should really be a non-issue. To wit: Recently, my best friend responded to a “How’s work?” text with the following, “I stayed home sick. I feel bad, but…I just couldn’t make it into the office. Hope my boss isn’t annoyed.”

Taking the occasional sick day, when, you know, you’re not well, is perfectly reasonable, and yet, a lot of us struggle with it. But, since we are not absolutely resilient, my friends, it’s about time to get over this irrational behavior.

Here’s how to do it so that, next time, you actually sleep all day and don’t pass the hours worrying that you’re the subject of the office gossip.

1. Don’t Overshare

You may be wrapped around the toilet bowl, but your boss doesn’t need that visual at 8 AM—or ever. For bathroom-related illnesses, it’s best to simply say that you have a stomach bug and leave it at that. If you believe you acquired food poisoning, go ahead and let your manager know that’s the reason you won’t be making it into the office. Going into graphic detail about your, uh, bodily functions, isn’t going to strengthen your case or make you feel better.

Aside from the fact that divulging too much information is unnecessary (and gross), it also sometimes has the effect of making it sound like you’re fabricating a story because you yourself don’t believe it and need convincing. That’s not a good look. Keep your email brief and to the point, and get on with getting well.

2. Cover Your Bases

Depending on your state, you may not be able to get much work done, and that’s OK. The company will go on in your absence. There’s no reason to be racked with guilt over missing a day or two of work because you don’t feel well. If you do have deadlines that can’t be pushed or something important to attend to, see if there’s another team member who can help out.

The easiest way to experience a guilt-free sick day is to spend 20 to 30 minutes getting organized for the day before going back to bed. Send out emails to any direct reports, cancel or reschedule meetings, send your boss a list of anything he or she needs to take care of as well as updates on what’ll need to be pushed back.

If your situation is dire—lifting your head requires great effort—consider putting up an out of office message saying that you won’t be responding to messages. That way, anyone emailing you won’t expect your typical speedy turnaround. These small steps will help you feel in control (and not stressed about ignoring your inbox and accomplishing next to nothing) and make you look responsible to everyone at the office.

3. Play by the Rules

Are you feeling physically fine but mentally drained and exhausted? I’ve definitely called (or, rather, emailed) in sick when my head and chest felt fine but my heart hurt or my emotional and spiritual self needed immediate attention. Taking a personal day when you need to just take care of you is a smart option—if it’s available to you. If your company doesn’t have a clear policy on this type of PTO, you might consider telling your supervisor that you’re “taking a sick day to attend to a personal matter,” and leave it at that.

Not comfortable opening up to your boss in this way? It’s OK to tell a little white lie. As Dawn Dugan for explains, “Just remember to keep your reason simple, don’t go into detail, and choose an illness that is quickly resolved—like a migraine or stomach bug.”

Even though a mental health day is as legit as a typical “sick day,” it’s up to you to read between the lines at your company to know how to best navigate this situation. After all, a template for what to say when you take a sick day isn’t likely something you come across in the employee handbook.

As long as you’re staying home and not, say, taking a long weekend in Mexico and calling in sick in lieu of taking a vacation day, you have no reason to feel guilty. Everybody has under-the-weather days, including your boss.

Don’t beat yourself up for catching a debilitating cold or suddenly feeling one mental health day away from a breakdown. The more you push yourself when you’re feeling terrible (physically or mentally), the harder it’ll be to excel at your job. Take care of yourself, and then take care of your work.