Madalyn Parker, a web developer in Ann Arbor, MI, made headlines last month after she shared a screenshot of an email she sent to her colleagues about taking a few sick days.
"I'm taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health," she wrote. "Hopefully I'll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%."
Ben Congleton, her boss and the CEO of the software company, Olark, replied: "I wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health — I can't believe this is not standard practice at all organizations."
Calling in sick can be complicated
Congleton is right — most companies are lightyears away from embracing candid asks from employees when it comes to sick days, for mental health or otherwise.
Americans are terrible at taking vacation days for a variety of reasons. Some can't afford to take the days off; others are too scared to ask and want to look driven; and still others feel like they have way too much work to get done. However, asking for a day off when you're sick can be harder to put off .
Federal law does not mandate paid sick leave, so it depends on where you live if you're eligible for the benefit. Some companies are beholden to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (which doesn't only apply to parents, FYI!), and only a handful of states have approved paid family sick leave policies. Still, if you're able to take some much-needed time off to take care of yourself, there are a few basic things you can do to ensure the ask goes as smoothly as possible.
"Working from home, personal time off, unlimited vacation — all these perks only work if we trust our employees to use them responsibly, and the same goes for sick time," says Sanji Moore, the general manager at Praytell, a digital public relations agency based in Brooklyn, NY. Moore says employees are expected to follow a few basic rules.
Clearly communicate with your team
Tell their teams they need time off as soon as they decide they can't come to work. Also make sure to flag anything that needs to get done immediately so no ends are untied. Share any information their teams need to handle those tasks in their absence.
Communication is key Moore says: "Whether it's in an email, a phone call, or just a text doesn't matter, as long as the rest of team is in a good place to take over. This way, the sick employee can truly sign off and not worry about anything but their health."
Get clear on your company policies
Edward Yost, an HR business partner at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) who specializes in employee relations issues, largely agrees. He adds, though, that checking in with an employer about company policy is often a wise move.
"Generally speaking, employees should use the company-preferred method of calling in sick," he explains. "Many companies specifically note in their written policy that an employee must speak directly to their supervisors rather than leaving a voicemail or sending an email message. Some companies and managers will prefer a text directly to the supervisor. I would encourage employees to ask their supervisors which method is preferred and comply with that requirement."
He says that fewer organizations require doctors' notes for one-or-two-day absences because things like a stomach bug or a bad cold won't always necessitate a visit to the doctor. Plus, requiring that note could put an additional financial burden on the employee for an unnecessary office visit or copay.
"If employees know they are required to provide a doctor's note, they may elect to come to work while they are sick, which can result in reduction in their overall productivity and potentially spread the illness to coworkers."
Don't go into too much detail
Regardless of how you keep everyone looped in, be sure to stick to the basics, he emphasizes. For the most part, employees should NOT share graphic details about their illnesses or specific diagnoses in those communications. Similarly, Yost says, managers should not play diagnostician and ask inappropriate questions about their employee's symptoms or diagnosis either.
Some of this might be a matter of company culture. You might totally work in a place where it's A-okay to gloriously recount the number of times and ways you prayed to the porcelain god after eating bad takeout. But as a matter of both propriety and professionalism, keep it simple.
"Employees should stick primarily to the fact that they will not be in today, and should indicate whether or not they expect to be out for more than just one day, if they can confidently say so," Yost says. "Extending this courtesy can help the manager effectively rearrange duties or reschedule other staff for multiple days rather than scrambling at the last minute.
Prioritize getting better
If you anticipate needing to be absent for several days for a medical condition, he says, your manager may decide to contact human resources and alert them to a possible FMLA leave situation. When you're feeling better, it's worth brushing up on what that might mean for you.
In the meantime, recover in peace. "If you’re sick, be sick," Moore says. "Take the time you need to rest and sign off email." So turn off your laptop — you're supposed to be recovering.