Calling in sick. How you do you talk about this with your boss and co-workers?

Dr Gary
By Dr GaryCA Latest Reply 2013-11-10 19:23:44 -0600
Started 2013-11-02 14:19:17 -0500

The alarm clock goes off and as you’re hitting that snooze button for the first time, you also realize the day is going to be a bad one. In fact, so bad that you don’t think you are going to be able to function at work today.

Just like that day last week when you called out sick. Or was it two days last week?

An occasional sick day or two, or a mental health day, is one thing. But what if your chronic condition results in frequent sick days? Making that call might leave you feeling embarrassed about not always being able to pull your weight at work. Or fearing how the news will be received by your boss. Or maybe concerned that you will be stigmatized in some way by your coworkers.

But on the other hand, you’re sick and you can’t make it into work? So how do you handle these conversations?

I recently posted an article on this topic. Here is the link:

I am interested in knowing how you handle conversations around calling in sick at work. How do you feel emotionally when you have to call in sick? Have you discussed this with your manager in anticipation of having to take time off on a bad day? After missing a day or two of work? How do you handle this with co-workers?

I hope you’ll jump in and share your experiences and advice!

27 replies

Khürt Williams
Khürt Williams 2013-11-07 12:41:50 -0600 Report

I'm rarely ever sick. In fact up until my "T1D" diagnosis (2006) I had been to the doctor 5 times in 5 years. All were wellness visits. Must the super immune system I have ( the same one hacking away at my pancreas).

My wife has fibro and is often "sick" enough to not be able to work. Truth be told if I was her manager she wouldn't work for me for very long. Why would I pay for a resource that's unreliable and can't produce?

She works at a wellness center. She has limited hours (and limited pay) and most of what she makes goes right back into the practice.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-08 22:39:24 -0600 Report

Hey Khurt,

Nice to meet you! Thanks for checking in here. Sounds like you have quite a work ethic which I suspect is really appreciated at your jobs.

FIbromyalgia can be really challenging, those hard to work days can come up so often. Sounds like she has a supportive manager. You would hope that a wellness center would also be understanding of illness. I guess in these situations managers have to weigh their concerns about productivity with their concerns about supporting someone who has good intentions but an chronic condition to deal with.

Glad you are here, Khurt. I hope you will stay in touch!


Stuart1966 2013-11-04 18:40:14 -0600 Report

PS Genuninely what the heck is a mental health day… never taken any of them either. Never worked anyplace that was even an option… (grumpy frown)

Just Joyce
Just Joyce 2013-11-06 18:29:24 -0600 Report

A mental health day is a day you call in sick when nothing is wrong with you but you need a day off from work.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-08 22:24:30 -0600 Report

Good answer, Joyce. And not a bad idea once in awhile for those who are working too hard without enough breaks.

Stuart1966 2013-11-04 18:38:44 -0600 Report

Worked since high school decades ago. NEVER called in sick except 4 times.

Once after surgery which went badly…
once for a migrane,
once for a naro virus which I was potentially contageous apparently…
once for double pnumonia which went ugly

But never been unable to work because of the diabetes, ever… -awkward shrug-

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-04 22:24:00 -0600 Report

Hey Stuart,

Thanks for jumping in here. Wow, what an attendance record you have. That's amazing. I hope you do take time off when you need it and don't push yourself too hard when you need a rest.

As for a "mental health day," it's one of those days you call in just because you need a break, like after an especially stressful period of time. Not advising you to take one, by the way, just giving you my definition. ;))


Just Joyce
Just Joyce 2013-11-04 12:19:56 -0600 Report

Dr. Gary, you raised a very important point. As an employee, you are responsible for knowing what your company policy and procedures are. You never know when you have to advocate for yourself.

You have to always be prepared. To do this you need a file that is NOT kept in your desk at the office. The desk is not your property and a boss can go through it anytime he or she chooses.

In your file have a copy of your employee handbook with the sick leave policy. Copy the sick leave policy out of the book for the file. Add any updates to the policy even if it comes as an email. Make a log that includes the dates and times you called in sick with a notation of why you called in sick. If doctors notes or ER information is required, make copies before submitting them. KEEP a copy of any memo you recieve from your boss, co-workers, department head, and HR. Keep a copy of any evaluations you recieve regarding job performance. Keep a record of every discussion you have with your boss, department head or HR regarding your illness with a brief synapses of what was said. If you have co-workers who often call in sick, keep a record of it. Finally, if you get any emails, that require a response from you. Respond in a professional manner. Try not to make excuses and do not reduce yourself to anger in the response and never point out that other co-workers may be doing the same thing. Prior to sending the response, you can BCC yourself to your personal email or you can send it, go in the send file open it and then send it to yourself. Make sure you print the email and all responses. I kept a file like this and when I had to turn in documentation, I would date stamp it in HR and make a copy before submitting.

You never know when this file will become handy. Make several copies of your file and hold on to the originals. You may need this file for a lawyer, unemployment or a union rep. Employers don't expect employees to keep these kinds of records. Even the most understanding boss still has to follow the policy and procedures of their employer.

Believe me, I have sat in on hearings as a shop steward and watched management say they did not get paperwork from the employee and swear they never sent a memo.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-04 22:19:50 -0600 Report


Thanks a lot for following up here. I have often been one of the worst record keepers and it has on more than one ocassion come back to haunt me. It only takes an extra minute or two to make sure that you have a saved a copy, hardcopy or electronically. And if you are in a situation in which you may need this documentation, then that extra time really pays off.

I think it is especially important for someone with a chronic condition to keep good records. As you said, you never know when you are going to need them, and they sure are hard to assemble after the fact.

This is great advice. Thanks a lot!


karmelkakes 2013-11-04 17:51:34 -0600 Report

HR had me to fill out an American disability act form because it is a disability and gave me intermittent fmla but when I moved and work from home they took the fmla away

mike1967D2 2013-11-03 23:36:32 -0600 Report

Dr Gary,
In my situation, the same day I was diagnosed 10/15/13 with D2 I called my boss had a talk with him about my diagnosis. I let him know I was filing flma and olma "Oregon's" and also a short term disability claim. Due to some temporary sight issues. He had no problems with this and was very supportive. Though I do work corrections for the state and am represented by union. In our state you can file flma if you work for an employee that has 50 or more employees. Which means if your dr fills out the paper work you can miss up to like 16 wks per year. Mine is up to 2x per week and 8x per month. I did this in case of dr appts, diabetes classes, labs, side effect problems with meds, real low/high days, or the occasion mental health day. This is covered by federal law and most states also have there own also. Employers can not discriminate because of this or take any disciplinary actions against you…if they do you can file one hell of a law suit. So all that being said I will only use when needed and it does come off sick time, vacation time, comp time, holiday time, if you run through all that then it's excused but not paid for. I have family that are attorneys and also I was a manager for many years myself. Plus a great union that reps have helped me out.

As far as my co workers and the others I work with…I'm hoping they will be supportive and understanding of the situation. I've always believed that education/knowledge with create understanding, so I plan on being totally upfront and positive about this new challenge in my life.
Hope any of this may help.
Take care.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-04 22:15:20 -0600 Report

Hey Mike,

I really appreciate the background information on FLMA. To be honest, I hear about it a lot but don't know as much about it as I need to. This is great to know. Those times can come up when you just need to be able to take some time off to take care of yourself. And so often employees aren't aware of what's available to them and are afraid to ask. I am sure it helps that you have a strong union behind you as well. So again, thanks a lot for letting us know about this.

And I agree with you about education. So often, it seems to me that people act out of thier own lack of understanding. So a little enlightenment can go a long way.

Great to see you!


Graylin Bee
Graylin Bee 2013-11-03 19:07:50 -0600 Report

So far I haven't had to call in sick. Just have the frustration of dealing with a sudden low right when I unexpectedly get to be working a few extra hours. Or, that the added stress of being in a calling 911 moment might make my BG act up at just the wrong moment. Or, dealing with the stress of Hospice moments might make it act up.
Like last night when a new to hospice resident panicked over not hearing and thought it was another loss on the way to death. Problem was dead hearing aid batteries.I didn't have a moment to check my BG and a low snuck up on me while I was dealing right afterwards with an upset med delivery person. Delivery person was upset because she was running late and needed to get through with her route because she has lupus and the sunlight would make her sick.I was taking the time to triple check (my normal procedure) that the meds were the correct ones. One med card stuck to another, I missed it, so marked the invoice as not correct. She is almost yelling at me to hurry up. Just after she leaves, I solve the missing med problem, run a half block through the building, down a flight of stairs, another half block down a hall through the lobby and out the main door. She is just starting her car, I am yelling "Wait" as she pulls away, I try to intercept her, no luck. Finally get back to my emergency stash, correct for the low. Then try to explain to a barely interested co-worker about my BG going low…sigh
Have had similar lack of interest from most of my co-workers. They think I am referring to Blood Pressure even when I say Blood Glucose.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-04 22:09:09 -0600 Report

Hey Graylin Bee,

It's always nice to see you! And I appreciate your perspective here.

Those are some pretty amazing stories. And I am wondering if the stress of the moment doesn't also have in impact on your blood sugar levels. When you work in a setting like your, with all of the emotions that you have to deal with, in patients and co-workers, plus all of the physical work, it must often be a challenge to keep your blood sugar in control.

Amazing that you are in a healthcare setting and still encounter so much lack of undertanding. A shame.

Thanks for sharing this with us!


Graylin Bee
Graylin Bee 2013-11-06 16:08:44 -0600 Report

At first the BG drop surprised me a few times. But I do try to have something handy to grab and eat to keep from dropping much more. There has only been one time when I was getting slightly worried I was going to need the EMT to add me to their response.
After reading so much of the "conventional wisdom" many health care providers have given posters here at DC, it shouldn't surprise me as much as it does. As care givers our training is most definitely less than even an LPN.
The not understanding the difference between BG and BP is a point of frustration to me. I expressed my concerns at a recent staff meeting with my Boss. Maybe we will have an in service about Diabetes as a result. Unfortunately where I work now it is the same as where I have worked at other places. Some people seem to think they are supposed to do just the opposite of what they are told to do.
Seems some shifts I use more of my dementia management skills in dealing with co-workers than dementia residents,
As to the emotions, I am fairly empathetic and can pick up on many of the unseen signals people throw off. Thankfully not as strongly as my Hubby can. Makes for a feeling of multiple personality disorder as I bounce from 1 resident to another and try to communicate on a level they might be able to understand at that moment. Nice gift when I can get a situation in a calmer happier place. Kinda sucks when panic mode is where the resident is at and I am trying franticly to redirect them while I am feeling some of their panic.
Despite a 5 night week of near crisis mood within the first 10 minutes of my shift on 4 out of 5 nights, still love my job.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-06 18:06:42 -0600 Report

Hi Grayon Bee,

Thanks for the additional clarification. Really interesting. Wow, when employees working directly with patients don't know the difference between BP and BG, that points to a need for more education, as you said. I love the comment about demential management skills, I used to feel that way at times myself when I worked in companies. Some people just don't want to listen, they are so caught up in their own llimited viewpoint.

Emotional intelligence is a very good thing. But those of us who have it do have to learn how to take care of ourselves, and set limits to make sure we don't get caught up in everybody else's crises.

I am sure you are a blessing to the patients you work with. Caring, and going the extra mile to be understanding, makes a big difference in the lives of your pateints.

Thank you!


Graylin Bee
Graylin Bee 2013-11-06 22:03:33 -0600 Report

Always have needed some alone time every single day. Don't get it, I get overwhelmed from too much "otherness".
That is one of the many reasons I enjoy working mostly nights. Day and evening shifts have too many group moments. Too many varied brain waves bouncing through the air to keep track of for extended periods.
Nights usually have one on one time with residents. I may have to bounce back and forth as I go from room to room, but it is not as demanding as reading 8 or more residents at a time, like during an activity or meal times.
But a few daytime shifts every so often sure help me get a chance to evaluate where each resident is at.
Glad you share and understand the blessing/curse. Those who don't have it often think I'm just weird.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-10 19:23:44 -0600 Report

I got it. I can certainly understand why you would appreciate those night shifts. Makes a lot of sense. Nice balance, and a way to avoid being overwhelmed. Those of us who are part of the compassion crowd -- whatever caregiving role we are in -- need to have a strategy for self-care.

Young1s 2013-11-03 13:44:36 -0600 Report

I am a stay at home mom but still had to have this talk with my family. For me, it was all about total disclosure. If i'm feeling funky one day or if I'm not checking my numbers like I should, my family knows it. They support me and ride me if necessary. I like that.

Your boss will understand, your coworkers will treat you differently, but your life will be so much better if they all understand what is going on with you. Look at it as an opportunity to educate those who want to know more about how we have to deal with annoyance. And, heaven forbid, if you are experiencing a low/high, someone is there to know what to do, because you gave them good information.

Just Joyce
Just Joyce 2013-11-04 11:54:38 -0600 Report

Valid point that total disclosure is the key. The problem is people won't understand and they have that right. Not all bosses will understand, nor do they have to work with you with disclosure. The one thing they can't do is fire you because of your reporting you have a chronic disease. They can fire you if your chronic disease can cause harm to you and your coworkers. I have seen this happen to diabetics who are out of control and people with heart problems.

Even if the boss is understanding, HR may not be. They have to abide by policies and procedures the company has in place for illnesses. Your boss may be willing to work with you, however, if you are missing several days a week, HR can pull you in even if they are aware because your illness is creating a problem at work. Days you miss may require others to fill in for you. Over time, your understanding co-workers will come to resent you. Not only are they pulling their weight, they now have to pull yours.

When I got sick and was in the hospital for over a month, I called HR, my boss and the department head. Our policy was that for extended sick leave you had to call in every three days. My boss suspended me for abuse of sick leave. I had to contact the union from my hospital bed to file a grievance. The union rep had to make them prove I abused sick leave. I won because neither my boss or HR could prove that I had abused sick leave. I had not taken a sick day in 2.5 years.

My last boss knew I was diabetic and that she had another employee who had bouts of chronic depression. This woman is an RN and is well aware of how illnesses could effect you. She has no compassion at all for anyone but herself. She didn't have a problem with calling in sick, she just didn't care to know or want to know that you were sick. However, if she wasn't going to be in due to illness, she expected you to listen to every detail and be symphatheic while listening.

Bosses are people also and like people, they don't have to care or be understanding. Thier bottom line is making sure the work is being done and that people are there to accomplish that goal.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-03 14:09:42 -0600 Report

Hey Young1s!

Thanks for jumping in here!

You bring up some really god points here. Disclosure can present challenges, but also be an opportunity to educate people who have little or no understanding of what it is like to live with diabetes. And if you become symptomatic, you certainly want somebody there who knows how to help if necessary.

Always nice to see you!


TeacherMike 2013-11-02 22:36:29 -0500 Report

I am a school teacher and recently diagnosed type II diabetic. Calling in sick makes me sick. I feel ill having to make that phone call and feel awkward the next day back at work. I feel like everyone is judging me. Whether they are or not, I obviously have no idea.

As for my boss, I have never mentioned my illnesses to him. Have no plans to do so. I just can't decide whether telling him would allow him to understand my absences and have empathy or become frustrated that absences may continue. Would he want to find another, younger, healthier teacher and replace me? Would his support for me increase due to empathy?

For now, I try very hard not to call in sick when I feel sickly. Frankly, I generally feel better having gone into work. Teaching takes my mind off other issues. Staying home generally keeps me depressed.

It just isn't an easy call, one way or the other. God bless those who deal with chronic illnesses.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-03 13:18:53 -0600 Report

Hi Mike,

Nice to see you, my friend. Your story is one that I hear so often. You are not alone. You said it so well. Employees living with chronic conditions like diabetes often walk the line between disclosing their condition and protecting themselves from potential bias once they do. And to complicate matters, you don't know what the fallout will be until you make the disclosure. Another good reason for knowing your rights as an employee.

Take care of yourself! And keep us posted!


Just Joyce
Just Joyce 2013-11-02 22:28:50 -0500 Report

Hi Dr. Gary,

Having been a manager with a diabetic employee, I know the employee should be aware of their sick leave policy. No matter how bad you feel that day or if you feel a need for a mental health day, the sick leave policy is what rules calling in sick. First have a meeting with your boss and bring a letter from your doctor stating that you may have to take days off.

Based on the sick leave policy, you may have some leeway. Our sick leave policy allowed you to call in twice but the third time required a note from the doctor. At times it is better to go to work and then leave because of sickness. Unfortunately for the employee, she was fired for abuse of sick leave. Our office operated 24/7. For every day that she called in sick, we had to pay the overtime for an employee to either stay to cover her shift or to come in to work. She was angry because she felt I should have saved her job. I could not do this because it was an HR decision. Now knowing more about diabetes, I know that she did nothing her doctor told her to do. She ate sweets most of the day and was totally out of control.

On the flip side, I got sick and was out for a over month. When I returned to work, I could only work 3 days a week. My doctor gave me a letter to take to work. On the day I returned, I had a meeting with my boss, her boss and HR. My letter was honored and I worked my 3 days. After the meeting my boss came into my office and told me I had to change the 3 days and she didn't care what HR said. I got up, got my purse and keys and said I am going home get someone to cover my shift and left. I got a call from her boss the next morning and we had a meeting. My boss was told that she could have caused a lawsuit because she can't undermine HR or my doctor. She then called my doctor and left several messages attempting to get a diagnosis. She learned the hard way that I was a former shop steward from with the union and knew rules and regulations better than the head of HR. She left me alone after that.

At my last job, none of the diabetics called off sick. We were always at work. We handled highs and lows at work with no problems. Always read the sick leave policy and have a talk with your boss and HR.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2013-11-03 13:14:18 -0600 Report

Hi Joyce,

I had a feeling you would participate in this discussion. I know you have a lot of experience in this area.

I really appreciate your reply. So often, employees don't know what their rights are, and they either don't know who to ask or they are concerned that if they do ask, they will make waves.

What an experience you had! It is a great example of how managers can overstep their bounds, and how employees need to advocate for themselves.

Thank you!