December 16, 2011
Sick time: Use it, abuse it, or avoid it like the plague?
Special to NWjobs
As a nurse in a Seattle-area hospital, Sacha Davis realizes how precious health can be. Davis is also a working parent of two young children, and as any parent can attest, kids are like pint-size illness incubators.
“I have a lot less guilt around using sick leave to take care of my kids than I do around using it for myself,” Davis says. “They need me.”
Sick leave is a double-edged thermometer. Employers wonder whether employees are faking that fever to shirk work; employees worry that too many absences will affect a performance review.
As we head into flu season, is there a right way to call in ill? Yes, say Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley, co-authors of the book “Working for You Isn’t Working for Me: The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Boss.”
“Follow the protocol of the company,” says Elster. “People who fudge the protocol get into trouble.”
If you can, speak to your boss in person; don’t leave a message. Talk about what needs to get accomplished in your absence and when to expect your return, delegate decisions to a peer or supervisor, and tell your boss what you’ve come down with -- but spare any gory details.
In a survey, CareerBuilder asked employers to share the most unusual excuses employees gave for missing work. Some responses:
Employee said bats got in her hair.
Employee said a refrigerator fell on him.
Employee fell out of bed and broke his nose.
Employee got a cold from a puppy.
Employee hurt his back chasing a beaver.
Employee had a headache after going to too many garage sales.
Employee drank antifreeze by mistake.
Your career’s reputation precedes and follows that call, Elster explains. Responsible employees who are “doers” aren’t considered slackers when ill.
“Sick leave is often an emblematic aspect of your employment,” Crowley says. If an employee isn’t performing to standard and avoiding work, calling in sick may be viewed as a poor work ethic, she says.
If leave time is a contentious issue between you and your supervisor -- whether because of a bad flu year or repeated absences -- Crowley and Elster suggest meeting one-on-one to discuss the problem and offer solutions. Examples include working from home, trading shifts or redistributing work.
Many employees have the opposite issue. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) calls it presenteeism -- the sense that you must go to work, no matter what you’ve got creeping through your chest or gut. About 60 percent of employees feel concerned about work going undone in their absence and 48 percent feel guilty for missing a workday, according to an NFID survey.
Americans have a culture where you work until you drop, says Marilyn Watkins of the Economic Opportunity Institute, which led the coalition to help pass Seattle’s paid-sick-day ordinance (see sidebar). “We all put a lot of pressure on ourselves to tough it out as heroic martyrs.
Seattle recently passed one of the most cutting-edge laws in the nation, requiring employers with five or more full-time employees to offer paid sick leave to all workers, starting next September.
If you must go to work when you’re sick, maintain respectful boundaries, suggests Crowley. In many of today’s offices, only half a cube wall separates your cough from your co-worker.
“Don’t touch other people’s things, don’t use their phone, don’t touch them,” she says. “Wearing a mask is a good gesture, but not everyone will do that.”
If you need to cough, leave the room or cover your mouth with the inside of your elbow. Wash your hands frequently.
If a co-worker struggles with a compromised immune system, let him know you’re sick and avoid exposing him to your illness, Crowley says, even if it means going out for chicken soup instead of eating in the lunchroom.
Ironically, presenteeism can lead to more illness or fake-sick calls due to pressure and strain. “We all have to get better at stress reduction,” Elster says. “Stress is a big part of why we get sick and don’t want to go to work.” Plan and take vacation days to eliminate the need for sick days down the line.
And if you just don’t feel like going to work? Don’t play hooky, Elster says. “We don’t always feel great when we wake up in the morning,” she says. “Pull yourself together, take a shower and go to work.”
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