The Politics of Calling in Sick

Full disclosure: I’m sniffling as I write this at work. Down the hall, I hear regular coughing, and I just finished a meeting with someone who dabbed at her nose the entire time. The odds are pretty good that one or more of us will infect an innocent bystander by our presence at the office. Why do we still come in?

Part of the problem is cultural: Americans are tough. Did cowboys call in sick on the range? No. Did soldiers call in sick at Normandy? No. What would John Wayne do? He’d pull up his boots and stagger in to work, that’s what he’d do. It feels whiny to call in if your job matters (and most of our work really matters.) Besides, the thought of your work piling up while you watch dismal daytime TV makes you feel even sicker. The first two to four days after the development of cold symptoms are the most contagious, but you can remain contagious up to three weeks. Who has that much time on the books?sick girl

So we dose up with over the counter remedies and drag ourselves in. Coworkers pull back when we walk down the hall, and the receptionist makes a display of spraying every surface you’ve touched with a can of disinfectant. Your manager tells you to go home, and your work is certainly sub-par. And yet we come to work. At least some of us do.

There are others who (perhaps more wisely) call in sick not only when they are really, really sick, but as a preventative measure. As a manager, I have received emails from staff that read: “I think I’m coming down with something; I’m staying home today.” Really?

I have a theory about this.

There are people who, when they got a cold as kids, were fed hot chocolate and hugs. They got to stay home from school with Mom or Grandma and cuddle up on the couch watching cartoons. This made sick days really, really attractive, even if you were actually not feeling good at all. Lots of kids learned to avoid things like tests, mean kids, or Little League games you were sure to lose by being sick (or claiming to be.) Not in my family.

My old school, Midwestern parents owned their own business. They were hardy, stoic, and didn’t believe in raising kids to be wimps. When I was sick, I was relegated to my darkened bedroom. No sunlight, no toys, no books, no TV. We were fed a steady stream of bland food and flat Coca Cola, which my mother believed was an effective cure for any stomach ailment. The lack of effervescence felt like an appropriate metaphor for my young desperate state of mind.*

I couldn’t wait to go back to school.

So, some of us equate calling in sick with flannel pajamas, hugs and hot cocoa, and some of us picture John Wayne yelling at us to buck up. With a glass of flat Coke in his hand.

My point is that the politics of calling in sick are complicated. They’re compounded by the suspicion that not everyone who calls in is really sick. One-third of workers have taken a day off when they weren’t really sick, according to a survey of more than 6,800 employees conducted by

Of course, everyone has to make their own decision, based on several factors:

  • Whether you’re contagious, impaired by medication, or generally not fit for public consumption
  • How your team will be affected by your unexpected absence
  • How much sick leave time you’ve taken so far this year – and how much you have left. You never know when you or a family member may become seriously ill.
  • What day of the week it is. Most employers say that they are more suspicious of calls on Mondays or Fridays.

How do you feel about calling in sick? Last resort, or guilty pleasure?  Leave a comment.

*(I just Googled “flat Coke,” and apparently it is considered an effective cure for nausea. I stand corrected, Mom; it’s the Real Thing.)

1 thought on “The Politics of Calling in Sick

  1. […] Taking sick time off has always been a tough issue to manage.  Is sick time an entitlement? Many workers feel that they are owed the days if they are on the books, and you certainly can’t dictate how much foresight a worker uses or whether he cares that there’s enough time off to cover if he should have a medical emergency. Conscientious workers may begin to feel resentful of workers who use up all their sick time in addition to their vacation time. Then they’ll feel resentful all over again when they leave the company with dozens (or hundreds) of hours that simply disappear when they resign. (Vacation hours must be paid back when an employee leaves.) […]


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