Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Real Talk: Is it OK to Take a Sick Day When You’re Not Sick?

person at home relaxed
gradyreese/Getty Images

Quick poll: Have you ever lied about being sick when you were a kid to get out of going to school?

OK, clearly I can’t hear your answer, but I’d take a guess that you answered yes.

But as we’ve all realized, when we enter the working world, this excuse feels just a little, well, sketchy. Not only because we’re full grown adults who know lying is bad (at least I’d hope so), but also because when we don’t show up to work, we risk more than just a slap on the wrist from our superior.

That said, sometimes you just really need to take that sick day, despite not being ill—so, what do you do instead?

When I first set out to write about this topic, my initial question was whether it was OK or not to lie about being sick (even though I know, I know, you should never lie). But as I spoke with Muse career coach and HR expert Arik Orbach, I realized that the real question was a little more complicated.

First off, there’s a difference between sick days, personal days, and vacation days—and chances are your company provides at least one of them (if not all). If that’s the case, it’s most likely those days are interchangeable, and thus you can save yourself the hassle of crafting a fake story (read this article if you’re still unsure about the difference).

Adds Orbach: “Every company differs regarding protocol. In forward-thinking or smaller companies, sick days likely are based on trust. [But] some companies may require doctor’s notes, especially if those jobs can’t be performed at home with a laptop.” When in doubt, check your employee handbook.

The second thing to consider is your justification. Are you taking time off because you don’t want to go to work? If so, that’s not a good enough excuse.

However, if you have a legitimate reason—say, you’re starting to burn out—that may warrant some time off. Says Orbach:

You should treat mental health like physical health. I recently read an article on Kim Scott’s new book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, and in it, she states to ‘put your own oxygen mask on first.’ I’ve never heard that expression outside of an airplane, but it holds true in the workplace, too, and I’m a huge fan of it. ​​In other words, it should be okay to take days off when you need them. You need to if you’re going to bring your best self to work each day.

And if you’re taking off for that reason, that it’s not so much a lie as it is a different kind of sick day.

But the other side of the sick-day coin is what Orbach points out: How does your attendance (or lack thereof) affect others? By choosing to take a sick day, you’re choosing to hand that extra work over to your team and boss.

This is why the whole lying thing just won’t turn out in your favor: “The problem is, certain employees need [sick days] more than others, so when they’re not taken as truly needed, it can create a perception of unfairness and ultimately hurt your credibility. The key here is to balance these needed ‘sick days’ with your output at work. It’s a much easier ask for those non-sick days when you’re a high performer or you’ve created trust with your manager,” he says.

In summary? Use your best judgement.

I know, probably not what you wanted to hear—but as I said above, you’re a fully-grown adult capable of making smart decisions. Just keep in mind that when you use one sick day, you take away another opportunity down the road.

So it should be worth it.