SICK DAYS: Guilt or a Given? The Gray Areas

There are generally two kinds of workers when it comes to sick leave. Those who use it only when they are seriously ill or someone they take care of is seriously ill, and those who see it as a goal to reach each year, leaving no sick day behind.

Especially in a COVID world, we’re now seeing more sick days racking up from exposures, quarantines, illnesses that aren’t identified yet but you don’t want that person in the workplace, etc.

Most companies have some kind of sick leave policy, giving anywhere from 4 – 30 days for sick leave. The average according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is 7 days. The average cost to employers was nearly 50 cents per hour.

I did a survey on this topic with several Facebook groups. In 24 hours 143 people responded. 40% get 6-10 days of sick time. 26% get 0-5 days. 23% just get PTO, not differentiation between sick days and vacation days.

 Within the two kinds of workers listed above, there is a subset of two groups.

1.     The people who feel guilty calling in sick, whether they are really sick or not

2.     People who feel no guilt and believe it’s their sick time to use when and how they choose

I’m not alone in that thought. One survey respondent wrote “Many people feel guilty and don’t use them at all. Others abuse the system. There’s not really a balance.”

Let’s look at the graphic for this story. An overwhelming number of respondents feel very guilty or somewhat guilty, so they’re piling that on to whatever else they are dealing with in life.

No alt text provided for this image

Another reason to feel guilty? The impact on your co-workers. “I feel totally guilty because I work nightside, which means someone from dayside would have to stay late so I’ll only call in sick if I’m up before the daysiders start their shift.”, someone else wrote. Yet another: “I know people abuse them. However, I think the biggest issue is we are understaffed so if someone calls in sick it screws the whole newsroom…. I would feel less guilty about using a sick day if my workplace was fully staffed.”

Others say it’s the managers making them feel guilty. Here’s one comment: “I think management should respect sick days and not make employees feel guilty for using them.” And another: “We should be able to use them when we’re sick without the third-degree from the employer.”

Here’s a graphic showing how often people felt pressured to come into work even when they called in sick.

No alt text provided for this image

On the flip side, some people say they’ll use it whenever they want. “They are part of my benefits package and I should be able to use them as I see fit.”, someone wrote. This was backed up by someone else who wrote “I feel like everyone should use their sick days for whatever reason they choose.” Perhaps the most punctuating point of this side of the discussion came from this comment: “USE THEM ALL! You don’t owe your company anything.”

One person offered this solution: “They’re abused about as much as they’re used legitimately. A one PTO bucket of sick time payout at the end of the year could go a long way.”

In the past few years, I’ve noticed a sick call trend. People claim the right to privacy and don’t have to give a reason.

No alt text provided for this image

If you are a manager, speak with HR as soon as you get to a new job (or now if you haven’t) to see where the company stands on sick time use, what you can and can’t ask. Employees, you should know this too. There is no federal law that forbids you from asking questions but tread lightly. You can ask for basic details and how long the employee expects to be out.

It’s human nature to say “Oh no! Are you okay?” and the person says, “I have a migraine and can’t see” and you can leave it at that.

Now we can openly ask as managers, “Do you have any COVID symptoms?”. We have to avoid spreading infection in the workplace and have to follow company and/or CDC guidelines.

But here’s the rub or the reward, depending on how you look at it.

ARE YOU SICK? OR USING A SICK DAY?

I’ve noticed a new trend the past few years where people will call or text “I’m using a sick day today.” When they call, they might sound perfectly fine and happy. Almost excited.

No alt text provided for this image

Now this statement can be interpreted two ways, they are sick and it’s their right to use it, or someone is taking advantage of the sick day policy. I’ve asked people when they say “Heyyyyy! I’m using a sick day today!”, “So, are you really sick?” to lots of sighs and text chains berating me for asking. When it sounds like you are just going for a free day off instead of actually using sick days for their intended purpose, it’s impacting the work we can do that day. We want you to be healthy, and we want you mentally present, but we also want you to be here when you can be here.

Here’s what managers look for when it comes to sick day usage and believe me – we notice.

1.     Calling in sick on a day that makes a three-day weekend for you habitually. Newspeople work odd days so your “Friday” might be a Tuesday. If we notice you are consistently calling in sick on Tuesdays, it’s going to set off red flags.

2.     Calling in sick on a day there is a larger staff. Wednesdays seem to be the day in newsrooms when the most people are there, given the aforementioned odd schedules. Wednesdays our cup runneth over and we have big plans to work on special projects. But the gratuitous “sick call” or two comes in and we’re back to being bare bones. We notice this. Heck, I’ve even planned for it.

3.     Calling in sick the day before or after a vacation. That just looks bad. It CAN and DOES happen, but if you do it habitually, you’re setting off red flags.

4.     Trying to use a sick day when it’s a vacation day. Things like “My flight is delayed I need to use a sick day tomorrow.” That’s not what sick time is for, it’s for actually being sick.

5.     You call in sick but you’re all over social media drinking or hiking or hanging out with friends from out of town. Not what sick time is for. That’s personal time or vacation time.

No alt text provided for this image

I once had someone who always called in sick on Wednesdays, middle of the week as a Monday – Friday employer. It happened like clockwork once a month. I finally had to deal with the habitual absenteeism and was told “Sometimes I just like a mini-weekend in the middle of the week.”

I had someone else who would always call in sick after a series of rough days. Maybe it was storm coverage or an ongoing trial finally wrapping up. Instead of saying “Boss, I’m burned. I need to take a day off”, they just call in sick. This person one time called in sick on a day they knew they were the ONLY reporter. They said they were just “tired”. The manager explained the dire staffing situation and said, “If you need a day off, you can take one later this week, but if you are really too sick to work then we understand.” The employee thought about it and said “Nah, I’m going to use a sick day. I’m tired.” We had no local reporter that day.

Aren’t we all always tired??? I haven’t gotten a good night of sleep since 1996.

FILL IN FIASCO

Ok, the sick day is called in. Now we’ve got to figure out who’s going to cover the shift.

Another trend I’ve seen:

1.     The employee has pre-planned the sick day and already covered the shift on their own behind the boss’s back, so the person getting called in is ready and waiting.

2.     Employees are tired of people calling in on their off days and won’t answer the phone or will flat out say “No”. That’s their “me time” and they “work-life balance” chant comes out. We get it, this sucks, but we’ve got a cost of doing business too.

I once had an employee plan a sick day a week ahead of time and got busted because the person filling in – who was usually off that – said “I’m working that day so let’s meet”. Red flags went up as I knew that person wasn’t working that day. The schedule reflected that person wasn’t working that day. I figured out who was going to call in sick. When I asked the person about it, I was again berated and snapped at for “I wasn’t feeling well all week and I came to work so I took Monday off to run errands”. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it looked shady. Just. Be. Honest. These were good, hard-working employees, there was no reason to maneuver like that.

I asked this in my survey – wanting to know how many people had actually used a sick day when they weren’t sick. Majority was “Yes”.

No alt text provided for this image

BUT.. when I asked, “In general, do you only call in sick when you are really sick or when you need to care for someone who is, the answer was overwhelmingly “Yes”.

No alt text provided for this image

I mean, if we have to be honest, I think most of us have. In 2000, I called in sick one day when I had an EPIC night out that could never be replicated, involving a super star and a party that went until the sun came up. I felt SO guilty about it, I called my boss and confessed later that night, promising her I’d do whatever I could to make it up to her, and I was fine to use a vacation day instead. She was gracious and asked for all the details of the night.

I know, at certain levels, when you call in sick you feel guilty because you are dumping work on others.

I asked people about this in the survey. How frustrated did they get when others called in sick? The majority said, “Not at all”.

No alt text provided for this image

In one of the surveys I did about Burnout, one of the biggest complaints was getting called in on off days. NOBODY wants their off day crapped on by a call from work.

Someone in the survey offered this idea, “Your workforce is burned out. Each employee should be required to schedule mental health days off each quarter.”

Add in vacation days people use and it’s a staffing nightmare. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Doing news schedules is the most thankless task there is. Trying to re-work a sick day with vacations planned is hell. Then you want to limit vacation categories, and you upset the people who all want off the Friday before Mardi Gras or you’ve got 5 moms who want off the first day of school. It’s a balancing act of fire in one hand and gasoline in another. Eventually, it’s going to flare up.

Employees fire back with: “It’s not my fault you don’t have enough staff in the newsroom.” Yep, I get it. We all need more staff, stuff, and salary. But when people habitually aren’t there or are adding in the 7 sick days as part of their days off, we’re not getting closer to the goal of getting more ratings/revenue, and that “stuff” moves father away in the field of view.

You see, you don’t generally get paid out sick time if you leave a station. You DO get paid out vacation time and PTO time generally. So, some people want to use the sick time first, so they have money at the exit point. That’s not what sick time is for. Sick time is a gift, while vacation time is earned.

Here’s all I’m saying. Use sick days when you are sick. Use personal or vacation days when you need time off for non-illness issues.

MENTAL HEALTH DAYS

I can’t speak for all employers, but I can say I’m an advocate for mental health days when needed. Punctuation on WHEN NEEDED. Waking up and being in a bad mood and not wanting to work is NOT a mental health/sick day. Otherwise, the world would function at half the rate because it happens a lot.

No alt text provided for this image

Being depressed, having anxiety, dealing with a mental disorder, marriage issues, a bad breakup, divorce, kids in trouble at school, etc. can and does suck the life (and productivity) out of you.

The CDC reports more than 40% of Americans had increased mental distress because of COVID. If you, as an employer, support mental health improvement you’ll see a return of $4 for every dollar you put toward mental health treatment options.

When employees have mental distress, it costs of absenteeism is more than $4700 per employee each year. The cost of that turnover as people exit the business due to mental distress and overload? More than $5700 per employee.

Also, people in mental distress are more likely to get involved in substance abuse. Another cost that racks up.

Why not get ahead of the problem now? Help the mental health of the staff before it becomes a big problem.

Someone once called me in tears saying they needed a sick day because they were dealing with mental issues related to serious family problems. Ok, I get that. Then this person ended up at a group event to watch American Idol or The Sopranos or something. Two ways to interpret this. You were too mentally unfit to work, but you were fine to hang out with friends and watch TV and laugh while someone else worked a double to cover for you, OR, this person was really struggling and it’s great they have a group of people who can surround and support them instead of them going it alone.

It’s all in the relationships you build with the people you supervise. Some of the best in the business I’ve worked with might have had habitual call-in sick days, but we could talk about it. Even one person who was in the “three-day weekend” sick call club said to me, “You busted me. Good work.”

No alt text provided for this image

Never before in the history of the news business have we as bosses been better trained in empathy, compassion, and leniency. Build a relationship with your boss when you are there so you can better navigate the times you aren’t there. We’re open to “I just can’t today. I’m exhausted. I cried all night” to give a thought to what you’ve been through at that bloody crime scene for three days straight. For the first time ever, you can say “My anxiety is getting to me, and I need to take a break for an hour or two”, and there are no rolling eyes.

I once had a field behind a station I worked at. Back in that day, I was a smoker. When I was at that breaking point, I walked the field. I calmed down. I thought through things in my head, or I thought of nothing but my dogs. I smoked, I paced, and I got my mental space better before returning to the newsroom. It even got to a point when I was super stressed one of my anchors would lovingly say “You need to go walk the field, don’t you? I’ll listen to scanners. Go ahead.”

God bless that man.

DON’T BE A HERO

Then there are the people who come to work sick, sniffling, coughing, trash can nearby, or hours after a cast was put on a broken leg.

One person in the survey said, “I’ve never used a sick day in 6 years of working, but I’ve also never been seriously ill enough to take a day off. I’ve definitely come to work feeling crappy though (pre-COVID). But I would never use a sick day just because I was overwhelmed or tired. I wasn’t raised like that.”

“I4 years in news, I’ve never called in sick, and I’ve worked very sick before. Being told I’m letting the team down if I don’t deliver on stories. (I feel guilty) so I show up and do my best even if I feel like death,” another person wrote.

There used to be a time when you could NOT, under any circumstances other than a severed limb, call in sick during a ratings book. I remember once I was SO sick on a Friday. I produced the 10 pm and I was just falling off a cliff of sickness by 6 pm. Temperature was 102. I asked some people to finish the show for me. Everyone had plans. I finally went into my boss’s office and said “I am very sick. I can’t finish the show. Nobody will fill in for me and I know it’s the book, but I can’t function right now even though I don’t have a severed limb” and I was ready to get yelled at for being sick in a book and risk losing my job. She said, “Go home, we’ll figure it out.”

God bless that woman.  

One of the most shocking responses I got on the survey was this, “I have only called in sick once when I was hospitalized after a car crash and they sent someone over with a laptop so I didn’t have to burn a sick day and could still write stories from my hospital bed. News doesn’t take a day off.”

Wowza. But I get it. I’d do the same thing.

In researching this article, I found a great new word to add to my vocabulary. Presenteeism. This is a word that defines the productivity lost by someone who is working while ill. Now, in a Pre-COVID world, this was a concern because, despite the most honest intentions of a hard worker, they could spread illness to others causing an avalanche of sick calls. Now we know better. You are coughing? Go home. Work there. We didn’t have that “work there” option in years gone by, at least not to the technical extent we have now.

I asked people in my survey if they are bothered when someone comes to work sick. Most said “Yes” in some fashion.

No alt text provided for this image

Studies show there is more money lost by people who come to work sick than people who call in sick (when they are actually sick). I asked in the survey how people see this – is calling in sick costing more money, less money, or no money.

No alt text provided for this image

Survey says – wrong answer.

No alt text provided for this image

According to the Harvard Business Review, presenteeism costs employers a total of $150 billion per year. Several studies say the cost is almost ten times more than absenteeism.

Three financial factors play into this.

1.     The person isn’t performing at optimal levels thus productivity is impacted.

2.     The person spreads their germs leading to more sickness in the newsroom.

3.     When more people get sick, more people go to the doctor. Healthcare costs are incurred by the employer. 

No alt text provided for this image

While many of us secretly hide our mental struggles and do presenteeism in a way nobody can see. Depression doesn’t have a fever. You don’t cough when you are super anxious. It’s easy to hide. Your boss doesn’t know when you are in a state of “presenteeism”.

This, my friends, is where the stressed-out part comes in. Presenteeism isn’t just coming to work with the common cold. It’s when you are overrun with duties, when your workload is suffocating you, when you can’t get it all done in a day but figure out how to do it. It’s mental illness, pain management, immune system issues, and the like.

My once very athletic body is letting me down now. My left hip is riddled with pain and sacroiliitis. I also have spondylosis in my lower back (fancy word for arthritis). This is just part of aging. You might not be there yet, but you will be. The days I’ve worked in intense pain, barely able to walk, are numerous. Nobody would notice. There were a few days I genuinely could not walk. I found a way to get my laptop on my lap and sit in bed to do work and meetings and such. Even with this, someone complains – and this is a quote “I have back issues too and I don’t get away with laying in bed all day working.” I would have loved for that person to try to walk in my shoes for just 10 steps. Then they’d get it.

Bronchitis though? Hard to hide that monster. Strep Throat? No thank you. Get a Z Pack and call me in 48 hours.

I’m a HUGE fan of going home when you are sick, staffing be damned.

The brilliant light I think the COVID crisis has brought us is the ease of working at home and how we’ve accommodated our life around it. What was once a luxury is now a need, and we don’t need any setup on the day of the illness. We are ready to go.

No alt text provided for this image

Once you have the option to work from home, you take away the risk of spreading anything and the healthcare costs, and you are only left with the productivity costs.

I am definitely in the category of people who don’t like to call in sick, even when sick, but now this glorious “I’m working at home” option is there. The way I look at it, for me personally and anyone like me, is – yes, in the office having to be work appropriate and interacting with people and heating up my lunch in the breakroom while coughing and sneezing – that’s gonna impact my productivity. Being at home, in pajamas, nestled in bed with a laptop on my lap with everything I could access at my desk? My productivity is back at 100%.

If COVID taught us nothing but this – we see just how quickly something can spread when it’s brought into a workplace (or social setting, wherever). I don’t care where you stand on masks or vaccinations, that’s not the point of this article.

Tell me when the last time you had a scratchy, hot throat you went right to the doctor to get a Strep test? Or when you felt like you’d been hit by a train and took the time to get into the doctor for a Flu test? Many people don’t do this. For my health, I choose to go to the doctor at the first sign of anything. Fever, sore throat, coughing a lot – I’m making an appointment ASAP. Let’s nip this in the bud. I’ve got stories to tell!

TOO SICK TO BE AT WORK, NOT SICK ENOUGH TO BE AT HOME

So, what about those days you just don’t feel great, but you aren’t too sick to work? I asked about that too. Most people said they’d just suck it up and work anyway, but the second category was “Let me work from home”.

No alt text provided for this image

These are “in-between” illnesses. I don’t feel 100% but I don’t think I need to sit in bed all day. I’m totally stressed out about being at the tornado damage scene for three days straight and I just need a little break. I anchored 6 hours of wall-to-wall wildfire coverage and my voice is shot. These things happen.

Here are some of the options I like to put out to people.

–       Would you like to work from home today?

–       Would you like to do (different job) today? Maybe an anchor with no voice can research an investigative story. A reporter can take over digital for the day to stay put after days in searing heat. A producer can update the contacts list in the system, a task you’ve been meaning to do for months but never had time to do it.

–       Would you like to shoot this fun VOSOT at 10am and then take half a day off?

–       I know you don’t want to use a sick day, so how about you take today off and we’ll make sure you get 4 10 hour days in this week so you don’t miss hours. You work about 10 hours a day anyway, you overachiever!

During COVID, I had some employees who had unfortunately gotten it, but weren’t too sick to work from home. We worked through SO many situations. You still sound like a demon and cough all the time? Let’s have you work on digital stuff. You have a fever and need to rest but are bored out of your mind? Call me when you are awake, and I’ll have something for you to do. You are going to the doctor in the middle of your scheduled shift? Here’s how we can work around that. You want to know what shift to work tomorrow? Call me when you wake up and are ready to start working. We’ll be prepared to dish out some stuff to do.

I can personally attest, having COVID and not being able to take a medicine to heal you, with a sickness that is not linear in any way, symptoms come and go by hours and not days, being mentally scared of “what’s next” as you doomscroll through a story about someone your age who was fine a week ago but is now dead from COVID because it can move “that fast”, whew, it’s hard. You’ll take ANYTHING to get your mind off of it. I actually put together an entire Internship Program the first week of COVID because I just needed to NOT think about it.

No alt text provided for this image

SICK, WITH A SIDE OF GUILT

I showed you some guilt graphics earlier. There are those people who even when they are VERY sick and call in, feel guilty all day about it. They know they are “screwing over” someone and feel bad about it. So now they’ve got physical and mental issues to deal with.

Don’t feel guilty when you call in sick because of an actual illness. The news will get on the air, one way or another. We’re not going to sit in black at 5 pm because you aren’t there.

We want you to be healthy.

I had someone with COVID call me to tell me the positive test result and this person was crying so hard. It broke my heart. It wasn’t “I’m scared for my health” or anything like that, it was “I’ve screwed everyone over and I feel terrible about that”. I couldn’t say it enough that this person didn’t screw anyone over. This person got an illness during a time there was a super-contagious variant going around. Period. This person was a hard-working, dedicated employee with a fantastic future ahead of them. To hear the crying and pain in her voice of guilt almost made me tear up. A few days later, this person, awesome as they were, called and said “I can’t sit in bed anymore. PLEASE give me something to do.”

God bless that woman.

THE SICK OVERSHARERS

There are also the people who overshare when they call in sick. Not only do they sound sick, or in pain, they give you details. Lots of details. I’ve always been lost as to what to say to this. I can’t tell them to be quiet, but I’m about to dry heave hearing the details.

How much do people feel inclined to offer when calling in sick? Survey says…

No alt text provided for this image

Here are some of my favorites:

–       “I have gout in my foot. It’s so swollen when I press on it I see my fingerprint. And there’s puss coming out.” (On top of this, I can’t stand talking about feet. Feet, in their healthiest form, gross me out. I always wondered if this person knew that and was just having some fun at my expense).

–       TEXT: “I broke my finger and just got back from ER. Here’s a pic of it.” (Please always warn your boss if you are sending a gross pic. Some of us are very sensitive to things like blood and bone coming through skin).

–       “I wasn’t feeling well yesterday and now I’m coughing up this green/brown phlegm with blood in it.“ (and proceeded to cough for the next two minutes in the worst, juiciest, intense cough I’ve ever heard). I finally just said “Get better and call if you need anything!” and hung up.

–       “I ate some bad clams and now I have explosive diarrhea. I had an accident in my bed and have to clean it up.” 

Just keep the details to a minimum. I have a migraine. I have a bad cold. I dislocated my finger. My back is spasming.

In researching this article, I found a yearly list of the reasons people call in sick, and I just have to list them here. Some are funny and some are just downright outrageous. One of the stupidest “I’m running late” calls I’ve ever had to make went like this.

ME: “Hi. Um. I’m trying to leave for work, but there is what looks like a group of angry pigs at the bottom of the staircase.”

ASSIGNMENT DESK: “Those are javelinas. Don’t mess with them.”

ME: “Seriously, Mike, I need to get to work, how do I get them to go away?”

ASSIGNMENT DESK: “Get some pots and pans and make loud noises. That might scare them off. But do NOT approach them, they can get very angry.”

Five minutes later I found that the loud noises got the wild animals to shuffle away from the stairs and I ran for my life to my car.

God bless Arizona.

Here are just a few of the top excuses employer heard, according to a Career Builder survey.

  • Employee said the ozone in the air flattened his tires.
  • Employee’s pressure cooker had exploded and scared her sister, so she had to stay home.
  • Employee had to attend the funeral of his wife’s cousin’s pet because he was an uncle and pallbearer.
  • Employee was blocked in by police raiding her home.
  • Employee had to testify against a drug dealer and the dealer’s friend mugged him.
  • Employee said her roots were showing and she had to keep her hair appointment because she looked like a mess.
  • Employee ate cat food instead of tuna and was deathly ill.
  • Employee said she wasn’t sick but her llama was.
  • Employee had used a hair remover under her arms and had chemical burns as a result. She couldn’t put her arms down by her sides due to that.
  • Employee was bowling the game of his life and couldn’t make it to work.
  • Employee was experiencing traumatic stress from a large spider found in her home. She had to stay home to deal with the spider.
  • Employee said he had better things to do.
  • Employee ate too much birthday cake.
  • Employee was bit by a duck.

 DOES ALL PTO FIX THE PROBLEM?

Some people in the survey only have PTO time. It’s a larger amount than normal, but the employee uses them for vacation AND sick time.

I once worked during a company transition, and we went from SICK vs. VACATION time to all PTO. I even said to my boss, “This will cut down on sick days dramatically. People want more vacation time, and they’ll be less likely to call in sick.”

Several survey respondent agree with me.

·       “I think people would be less likely to lie about being sick if all the time was lumped together as PTO.”

·       “I wish it was all PTO. Then there would be no question if I was really sick or not.”

·       “Roll it into PTO. Let me use it and cash it.”

·       “Sick days should be part of the general PTO bank.”

·       “I have PTO and feel I now call in less because I’d rather use the time for something more important.”

·       “I’d rather companies eliminate sick/vacation and just did PTO. I hate the lying from colleagues pretending to be sick or extending vacation.”

One idea that would also help was offered in this survey, “I would love to get some incentive for leftover days because I’ve never used a sick day. Again, I’m blessed to never have been super ill and I don’t want to encourage people who are (sick) to come to work, but maybe there is something than can be an incentive.”

SICK TIME: RIGHT, PRIVILEGE, OR REQUIREMENT.

“They are part of my benefits package, and I should be able to use them how I see fit.”

There’s that quote again. Here’s another.

“It’s my PTO and I’m entitled to it. The world will keep turning if I call in sick for one day. Mental health is still health.”

Are sick days a benefit required? Nope. The Department of Labor has no federal requirements for paid sick leave. Your state might, but it’s not federal law. Some people in this survey had none, leaving the option of going to work sick or not getting paid. Sick time is a courtesy companies offer. (Keep in mind we aren’t talking about FMLA items here, that’s a whole other topic.)

Make sure when you are applying for jobs you ask about the benefits package. How many sick/vacation days or if it’s all PTO.

Here’s the rub for me. When I’m doing or helping someone with holiday schedules, I also check the “sick” time left for employees. Unfortunate as it may be, or as beneficial as it may be, I can smell a sick day call months out. So, when we’re down to one reporter the day before Christmas, and the person who IS there got denied time off for that week AND had 5 sick days in the bank – I just know it’s coming and we have to adapt the schedule. It’s not like that for everyone, but when you know your staff well enough you know who’s going to empty the bank by December 31.

CALLING IN SICK: SHOULD YOU BE ABLE TO TEXT?

This is one thing I, as a manager, am adamant about. If you are sick you need to CALL a manager. I make this policy clear. Too many times someone will tell the person who answers the phone in the newsroom and then that person gets busy and forgets to tell anyone and then we miss an important news conference.

One person wrote in the survey “I’d be more inclined to use one if I was allowed to text instead of call saying I’m sick. But taking sick days is hard because my job is so demanding. I wish there was a more viable option without screwing over co-workers.”

Bosses, how do you handle sick calls? Can they text? Do they have to call? Can they email? I just feel a text can get missed, or they text a person who is off work that day, or they email and it gets lost in 100 other emails because they sent it at 1:20 am. When you SPEAK to someone in charge, we can better plan the day without you. If you are genuinely sick, calling shouldn’t be a problem.

I asked the group about reasons they call in sick other than being ill.

No alt text provided for this image

USING SICK DAYS FOR UNPLANNED SITUATIONS

I’ve seen this more times than I’ve seen my dog chase her tail. People call “My flight is delayed and I can’t get back until tomorrow. I don’t want to burn a vacation day, can I use a sick day?”

So do employees think sick time is an extension of vacation time?

No alt text provided for this image

One comment on this topic was “Sick days are not to extend your vacation or to cover for your poor planning. If you fail to leave a margin to get back from your trip that’s not your co-workers responsibility to pick up the slack for you. That’s not being a team player.”

I know whenever I travel, it exhausts me. I need a day off after travel to unpack, do laundry, rest up, and get caught up on email. I plan for that. I always submit my requests to take the day AFTER my trip off so I can recoup.

I asked in the survey if people think sick days should be able to be used for these issues. Overwhelmingly, YES.

No alt text provided for this image

Here’s the rub on this one for me too. If you’ve used up all your vacation days, and then you have a flight delay or decide to stay another day, most companies will make you use any available time left before going unpaid. So, the person gets to use a sick day whether I like it or not. If someone calls in sick on a company holiday, managers generally can’t put a sick day when it’s already a holiday. So that person gets the holiday off AND doesn’t burn a sick day. Now, again, when you are legit sick, I get it. But when it’s not a real illness, it’s dirty pool.

Someone said in the survey “(Sick days) are often abused by people who want to ‘stick it to management’, but that really creates more work for me.”    

WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?

So, we’ve got several breeds of people in this survey.

1.     Use it all, come hell or high water

2.     Use it when you need it, but play by the rules

3.     Never, ever call in sick.

Each group has a beef with the other two. Someone even wrote in the survey “The comments made by upper management about ‘I never take a sick day’ are inappropriate.”

For some of us “never call in sick” people, it’s a learned behavior of the Boomer generation as we watched our dads or moms go to work sick. There wasn’t even a thought of calling in sick and we learned that. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s who we are.

As time went on, I transitioned with the workforce to be more open to calling in sick, and I do have a strong belief in taking care of mind, body, and soul.

Here is the step forward we need to take as an industry from my perspective.

MANAGERS:

–       Know what you can and can’t ask about sick calls. Ask your HR department. Find out when a doctor’s note is required.

–       Discuss at station or corporate level if “mental health” calls are acceptable (and argue why they should be). Most people, if not everyone, feel they should be. Employees need to know if this is an option. Make it clear to them. It removes the guilt.

–       Notice trends in sick calls, like the perpetual 3-day weekend creators. Talk with your HR first, but if there is a pattern of being out, like every third Friday of the month, then you probably have a legit reason to pull the employee in and talk to them.

–       Explore the four-day work week with 10-hour shifts. Having three days off might make people less inclined to call in sick.

–       Consider just having a PTO bank, if you don’t already.

–       No matter what generation you are, or your personal stance, or how much you do/don’t believe the person, don’t make them feel guilty. I’ve been accused of doing this and I immediately stopped. I didn’t want people to think I was “mad” they were calling in sick, but those “trends” stick out in my mind. The day of a sick call wasn’t the day to address those. Sometimes my perception of being “mad” was we had a GREAT news day built up, and now we have to sacrifice something. I wasn’t mad at the person. I was shouting at the moon because I want as much good content as we can get.

–       Notice who is getting burned out. I once had a great employee who came back from a story and threw down the camera bag and stormed off. I contemplated chasing this person to see what was wrong but decided to give them space. I called them later that evening so it was a private conversation and asked if they needed a day off because they seemed really stressed. What can we work out? Get yourself ahead of the sick call so you can plan.  

–       If someone is sick, but not too sick to work, give them an option of something else to do. I was once forced to stop working because of an illness, and I wasn’t too sick to work. Nobody would listen to me. I had to sit on the sidelines and watch news happen and I couldn’t be part of it. The mental chaos this caused for me was far worse than the cough I was nursing. I was a mental mess (and bored out of my bloody mind). For those of us who are against calling in sick, give us something to do to feel part of the team if we are willing and able.

EMPLOYEES

–       Ask about the policy on using mental health days. Be clear about what does/doesn’t constitute a sick day at your company.

–       Avoid the urge to misuse sick days and break the habit if you do.

–       Plan your time off with plenty of time to get back from the trip. If you have a flight that lands at 6 am and you will go right to work at 9am, there’s a good chance for a delay.

–       Know the news. I once had an employee who was smack dab in the center of a certified blizzard call me 4 hours into the storm saying they couldn’t see to drive. I asked why they didn’t plan ahead to be here, knowing a storm was coming, and they said they had been off work and didn’t pay attention. Pay attention.

–       If someone ever makes you feel guilty about calling in sick, let them know how they made you feel when you return to the office. You can also go talk to HR. It doesn’t have to be a nasty conversation, but just something like “You know I called, and you sounded like you didn’t believe me, and it really made my day even worse. I’m not sure if you realize how that comes across from your end, but I thought it was good information to share.”

–       CALL IN SICK WHEN YOU ARE SICK. Don’t be a hero. Work from home if you want to, but don’t come to the office to spread germs. Especially in newsrooms, there are so many shared surfaces, it’s not worth risking it. Be respectful of the people around you and go home, even if that’s where you decide to work from that day. Or just actually be sick and lay in bed and binge-watch something. One Friday I came to work and went off the proverbial sick cliff in the first two hours. I told the staff I was leaving, as I would ask them to do in this COVID world, but I’d be working from home. Even being vaccinated and ultra-cautious, I had gotten COVID. Thank goodness I left and generally stay away from close contact.

–       Go to the doctor or do a virtual doc call when you start to feel ill, not on day 3 of an illness. This can avoid a prolonged sickness and get you better faster. I once had a person with Strep Throat “It’s okay, I’m not contagious.” Uh, yes you are until 48 hours of antibiotics. I watched from my office as the newsroom went down like dominos catching the illness until it finally hit me and I ended up with Strep, sinus infection, upper respiratory infection, and bronchitis. The way an illness hits you isn’t how it’s going to impact everyone.

–       If you know someone is mentally struggling, please offer to help them get support. Use the company resources available. Don’t go it alone. Go talk to your boss privately about it if you need to. We try to see all corners of the newsroom, but sometimes we don’t see what you see. In the 13 years, I’ve lost my mom, dad, sister, niece, and two people who were my parents’ best friends. That weighs on my heart daily. Only people who know me best will see it.  

–       Stop gossiping about sick calls and who is or isn’t sick. How many times have you heard “She was out partying last night, that’s why she’s taking a sick day. What a beotch.”. Someone might be out dealing with a tragedy of some kind, or personal yet embarrassing health issue. I once somehow got Giardia, and I won’t go into details, but I tried so hard to go to work with it but ended up having to go home and use sick days. I didn’t LOOK sick, but I was sick in my digestive system and I’ll just leave it at that.

It’s going to take a little give on both sides to stop the Sick Time Drama that invades all newsrooms. We need to have trust, compassion, and respect for each other and not give a reason to break that trust and respect.

Are there perfect solutions to this? Not really. But it’s a good time to start the discussion or re-visit the topic with your employees.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: