If you’re wondering how sick is too sick for work, you’re not alone. Recent research shows that many employees feel guilty for taking sick days, especially if they work from home.
So what is a good reason to call out of work? Some might think physical pain or a family emergency is the only valid excuse to take a day off of work. But in reality, there are plenty of reasons that you might call out of work. From a bad cold to needing a mental health day, it’s OK to take the time you need to rest.
Unfortunately, hustle culture has led many of us to believe that we should just “push through” illnesses and personal problems. In fact, the idea that showing up is more important than taking care of yourself is so common that it has a name: presenteeism. Though this behavior may come from a desire to succeed professionally, it can only lead to burnout in the long term.
The truth is that there are plenty of valid reasons to miss work. As long as you’re not taking advantage of company policies, calling out of work should be reframed as a form of self-care. When you take the time you need to rest, you can be more effective, productive, and focused later. There’s science behind the power of Inner Work® and rest. In fact, at BetterUp, we’ve studied this. Engaging in different types of rest improves well-being, productivity, and focus.
Let’s dive into 15 legitimate reasons to call out of work, how to communicate with your team when you need a day off, and tips for returning to work after time away.
12 good reasons to call out of work
If you work remotely, you may struggle over the decision to call in sick. Yet, studies show that working while sick negatively impacts your job performance. You might be doing the work, but if you’re not fully present, you’re bound to make errors or turn in lower-quality work.
But being sick is just one of many valid excuses for missing work. We’re all human and sometimes, life happens. It’s important to understand when you need to take a step back.
12 reasons to call out work
- Loss of a loved one
- Feeling sick
- Food poisoning
- Someone else is sick
- Doctor’s appointment
- Caring for a pet
- Family emergency
- Lack of childcare
- Car trouble
- Internet connection issues
- Jury duty
- Personal day
1. Loss of a loved one
If someone you love passes away, the last thing you want to think about is work. On top of taking time to process your grief, you may need to deal with logistical and financial arrangements such as the funeral.
Some companies have a formal bereavement leave policy to cover death in the family, so be sure to check your employee handbook for guidelines. If not, you can talk to human resources or your manager directly about what happened and why you need time off.
2. Feeling sick
If you’re suffering from seasonal allergies, a minor headache, or a mild case of the common cold, you can probably still get things done. However, if an illness is keeping you from being fully engaged or focused on your job, it’s best to take a day off to rest. Remember, even if you could work from the comfort of your bed, that doesn’t mean you’ll be effective.
If you do have to go somewhere in-person, contagious symptoms like coughing could be considered a good excuse to call out of work. In this case, it’s best to check with your manager. Keep in mind that your employer may ask for a doctor’s note if you tell them you’re feeling seriously ill.
3. Food poisoning
Food poisoning wrecks your body and often, keeps you up all night. If you eat something bad and get sick afterward, it’s completely normal to call out of work. You may need to catch up on sleep or simply take some extra time to recover.
4. Someone else is sick
Maybe you’re feeling fine, but you have a sick child at home and need to take care of them. You might have to pick up a prescription, drive them to urgent care, or make sure their fever doesn’t spike.
Whatever support your family member needs, it will be hard to juggle that on top of your work responsibilities (even if you work from home). Yes, you could try, but more than likely your attention will be on other things. If you can, it’s best to step away from your desk for the day and take of your family.
5. Last-minute doctor’s appointment
Usually, you can give your employer advance notice if you need to take the day off for a medical appointment. But in some rare cases, you may need to call out at the last minute.
For example, say you’re waiting to see a specialist that has limited availability. If they call you in the morning to say that someone canceled their appointment, you may want to jump at the chance to take that opening. If you don’t, it could be months before you see this doctor. It’s reasonable to miss work for the appointment. Make sure you communicate clearly with your manager to gain support and the time you need to focus on your health and well-being.
6. Caring for a pet
If your pet has an emergency, that’s certainly an acceptable excuse to call out of work. Your dog might’ve gotten into the trash and potentially eaten something poisonous. Or you notice your cat is limping and not eating. Or you need to take a pet to a surgical procedure or some other type of appointment. It’s OK to make your animals a priority.
Pets are an important part of many people’s lives. If you can’t avoid missing work, your manager is likely to understand your need to attend to a pet emergency.
7. Family emergency
Any good employer will understand that family comes first. That means if you’re faced with a sudden and unexpected family emergency, it’s completely reasonable to call out — in these moments, we need to give our loved ones our full attention.
Here are some examples of family emergencies that could cause you to miss work:
- Someone needs to have an unplanned, urgent surgery
- A family member was in a car accident
- An elderly family member is injured
- You need to travel to support relatives that were victims of a natural disaster
- A family member is going into labor and needs you to take care of their other kids
- Someone is dealing with mental health issues and you need to be present to support them
8. Lack of childcare
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic brought childcare problems for many working parents. And even though the effects of the pandemic have faded, parents still need workplace flexibility as they juggle raising their children and contributing to their jobs.
This doesn’t just affect parents that need to go to the office, either. Even if you work from home, that doesn’t mean you can be productive when school is unexpectedly closed or your babysitter calls out sick. Needing some time to work out childcare arrangements is a great excuse to call out of work (as long as it’s true, of course).
Calling out of work to prioritize childcare can also help curb the impact of caregiver fatigue. After all, caregivers are burdened with quite a lot of priorities. It’s important to make sure you’re helping your working parents focus their energy on what matters most.
9. Car trouble
Whether it’s a flat tire or a fender bender, car trouble can really ruin your day. Sometimes you can wait to address these issues until the weekend, but most likely, you’ll need to get that tire changed or submit insurance claims sooner rather than later.
If you have a less serious car problem, you can just call out of work for a few hours. But if you get into an accident on the freeway, you could be held up for much longer. Whatever the trouble, just be sure to inform your manager as soon as you can.
10. Internet connection issues
If you’re having trouble with your internet connection, remote work can feel just about impossible. But before you call out, see if you can get online using your cell phone’s hotspot or by going to a local cafe that has free WiFi.
If your WiFi problems are being caused by severe weather conditions, though, you may not want to leave your house to access the internet. If that’s the case, just take the day off and try to get online after the weather passes through.
11. Jury duty
If you receive a jury summons in the mail, you have one of the best excuses to call out of work. Jury duty is a responsibility that you can’t avoid, so be sure to ask for time off as soon as you know you need it.
According to federal law, your employer is required to give you unpaid time off for jury duty — but depending on your state, they could also be required to pay you for those days off. Either way, you may be asked to show your official jury summons to your employer, so be prepared.
12. A personal day
Sometimes, you just have too much on your plate. Maybe you’re moving to a new apartment or juggling home renovations on top of your work schedule. Or maybe you’ve hit a bout of challenges and need to take a mental health day. Whatever you’re dealing with, a personal day could be what you need to stay sane, run errands, and catch up on life.
The one thing you shouldn’t use a personal day for is your job search. This is dishonest and could put your coworkers in a tough position if you call out at the last minute for no good reason. Use traditional paid time off for your interviews and plan ahead as much as you can.
Reasons to call out of work last minute
As we all know, we can’t control what life throws at us. It would be nice to know when emergencies are going to happen, but that’s not realistic. At some point or another, you might need to call out of work at the last minute — here are three reasons why.
Severe weather can prevent you from commuting or knock out your internet connection. But hurricanes, tornadoes, and other dangerous events can also mean you need to evacuate on short notice. Even if you don’t evacuate, you may need to take a couple of hours off to stock up on supplies and groceries ahead of the storm.
Whether it’s a pipe burst or a bedbug infestation, problems with your home can distract you from working. These situations are almost always sudden and disruptive, so you’ll probably have to call out at the last minute to manage the emergency.
Circumstances out of your control
Ultimately, any unexpected situation out of your control can keep you from working. It could be something as simple as running out of gas on the highway as you’re commuting to the office. Or, it can be as dramatic as the family emergencies we listed earlier. Regardless, it’s important to know when to call out so that you can take care of yourself and maintain a good work-life balance.
A note on mental health days
Not every company allows for mental health days, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a valid reason to call out of work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, mentally exhausted, or constantly anxious, it’s time to find a way to step back.
So how can you balance your employer’s policy while also preventing burnout? Well, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and HIPPA, you don’t have to tell anyone why you’re taking sick time. That means you can use sick days to focus on your mental health — because it’s just as important as your physical health.
There are plenty of ways to spend a mental health day. A mental health day can allow you to check in with your therapist or coach, get outdoors, or simply relax on the couch. Do whatever you need to do so that you can come back to work the next day with more energy and excitement. This will help you thrive at work in the long run.
At BetterUp, we’ve studied a concept called Inner Work®. It’s a practice that challenges us to look inward at our experience, though it’s personal and unique to every individual.
After all, our inner world looks at how we show up for ourselves, what we value, and how we see the world around us. Without taking a pause to look inward, we risk grinding ourselves to dust.
The science behind Inner Work® tells us that we return to our workplace as better communicators, better teammates, and better leaders. In fact, it’s been shown to improve employee retention, employee engagement, and even curb the impact of burnout.
How to communicate your need to call out of work
You might have a perfectly good reason to call out of work, but if you don’t communicate with your boss, you could put your job in jeopardy. Here are 4 steps to missing work the right way.
1. Alert your boss ASAP
As soon as you know that you won’t be able to work, give your boss a phone call or send them a message. If you wake up at 6 am with a migraine or you’re up with a sick child at 3 am, you can even go ahead and send them an email at this hour. Then, within work hours, it’s a good idea to follow up and confirm the message was received.
2. Keep it simple
You don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of your food poisoning to request the day off.
Keep your message brief, direct, and clear so that your manager and team members know why you’re going to be away and when they can expect you back.
3. Be honest
Honesty is crucial when calling out of work. If you just want to sleep in, don’t lie and say you’re feeling ill. Remember, you were given sick days for a reason, and they should be used responsibly — but also at your discretion. If your kids kept you up all night and your mental health is going to suffer without some sleep, then you can be honest about that, too.
4. Share updates
Finally, stay in touch with your company as much as possible. If you find out you need more time off than you originally thought, tell them immediately. When you’re feeling better, share that, too. This will make it clear to your team that you take your job seriously.
Tips to return to work without feeling overwhelmed
Going back to work after time away can be stressful, even if you’ve been planning your vacation for months. When you have to step away suddenly and without preparation, it can be even tougher.
Here are a few tips for avoiding overwhelm when you return to work:
- If you have time before you call out, send an email to your manager and team with a list of the most important things that need to be done while you’re away.
- Keep a document of all your current projects and their statuses. Update it regularly so your team can access it and continue to make progress when you’re not there.
- Create how-to tutorials for your most important tasks. When you’re dealing with a personal emergency, those tasks can then be handed over to a team member.
- Make sure to take plenty of breaks during your first few days back at work. It will be easy to get caught up in meetings, emails, and everything else, but try to ease yourself in.
The bottom line on calling out of work
You might feel guilty for missing work, but if you don’t take care of your family, your health, and your well-being, you’ll struggle to be productive — even if you work from home. Plus, not taking the time off when you need it can reduce your job performance, keep you sick longer, and lead to burnout.
When you take care of yourself, you can be fully present at work. That will make, you and your employer, happier in the long run.
If you’re a leader, trusting and supporting your employees is one of the most important things you can do. But if you’re not sure where to start, BetterUp can help. Access to virtual coaching can provide personalized support to navigate challenges, especially the ones that we don’t anticipate.