When it comes to your job, there’s no such thing as a perfect attendance award. If you have PTO, you should make it a priority to call out of work when you need to. You’ve earned those days. Calling out of work can also help with burnout, your overall health, and productivity.
Many people don’t use the time off they’ve earned. 54% of US employees reportedly leave half of their PTO on the table…while 66% of people said they worked while on vacation. Last we checked, that’s not how vacations should work. The pandemic has only made the situation worse. More than half of remote workers felt more stressed about taking a sick day last year compared to past years, according to a 2022 survey conducted by Zippia.
If that sounds familiar, then you’ve come to the right place. Psychologist Dr. Carolyn Rubenstein, who specializes in working with “productivity addicts,” and leadership expert Cy Wakeman, author of “Life’s Messy, Live Happy,” gave us perfectly good excuses to call out of work and how to do it.
What are some good reasons to call out of work…and how can I justify them?
You’re feeling sick or caring for a sick child
Everyone’s definition of feeling sick is different. In one 2021 survey conducted by OnePoll, more than half of employees said they must give their manager a specific reason for calling out sick. More than two-thirds of those people were also concerned their bosses didn’t believe their reasons. “If your body is telling you, ‘I just can’t. I need help here,’ then take work off the table,” says Dr. Rubenstein.
There’s no need to over-explain your issues to your team, says Wakeman. Instead, make it clear that you’re not able to work to the best of your ability and that you’ll commit to returning refreshed. If you find yourself dealing with a health condition that could require long-term leave, it’s time to talk to HR about medical accommodations.
Caregiver duties are also valid. If you have a sick kid at home, it probably demands all of your time. You shouldn’t have to do two jobs at once.
You’re grieving or caring for a family member who is
It may also be called bereavement leave. Think of mourning a death as if it were a physical illness, says Dr. Rubenstein. “You’re dealing with true pain. So validate what you need.” That said, some people find that stepping away from work is not helpful while grieving because it feels more isolating. It’s your decision to make.
You have a doctor’s appointment
It’s an age-old excuse for missing a meeting — but it’s okay to step away from work to address your medical needs. If you need another reason to get checked out (you don’t): It’s in your company’s best interest for you to address an issue early, so that you don’t get sicker and need to be out longer.
If you’re a salaried employee and just stepping away for smaller things, like routine doctor’s visits and vaccinations, don't worry about making up the hours later unless it’s necessary for you to get the work done, says Wakeman. Take sick days for anything else, particularly if you anticipate feeling foggy after your appointment.
You need a mental health break
Depending on your company culture, mental health days may be a legit reason to call out, no questions asked. If that term isn’t cool in your company, you can replace “taking a mental health day” with “investigating a health matter,” says Wakeman. Regardless, you shouldn’t wait until you’re completely burned out to step away. Instead, Dr. Rubenstein suggests taking some proactive rest. Look at your calendar and request those breaks weeks ahead of time — like following a major work presentation or the day after your sister’s wedding.
If your PTO policy allows, you might consider spreading out your PTO throughout the year so that you can take a half-day off every month or so. That’s separate from an unexpected mental health episode like a spike in depressive symptoms or a panic attack. These might be true medical conditions you should address immediately with a sick day.
You need to get sh*t done
Most people have a to-do list they’ve been sitting on because they can only get it done during work hours. Renewing a driver’s license or getting a passport photo are two examples. Put it on your calendar, then give your team a heads up. (Bonus points if you can do it during a slow time at work.) It normalizes running errands — something that people actually do more often than taking lunch breaks.
You’re taking vacation
Take. Your. Vacation. Days. Depending on your company policy and state laws, you may be able to roll a certain number of unused vacation days over. Don’t let your workaholic colleague convince you to bank your PTO (unless you’re leaving your job soon and trying to get those days paid out). Putting up the OOO palm tree on Slack several times a year is important for your mental health.
What if I feel bad about taking a vacation?
You’re not alone. Many women don’t take the time off. That might be because they don’t think work can go on without them (a delegation issue), they default to behaving like a martyr, or they think it'll set them back at work (probably not true), says Wakeman. Even employees with “unlimited PTO” plans don’t always take advantage.
Consider this: A Harvard Business Review study (which, we should note, was conducted in partnership with the US Travel Association) suggested that employees who took at least 11 vacation days were more likely to receive a pay bump than those who didn’t. Many employers actually encourage workers to get away because it means they’re more likely to return feeling refreshed and less stressed. Plus, there’s a better chance they’ll stay at the job longer. Looking at you, The Great Resignation.
Can you tell me how to call out of work for a vacation?
A piece of advice for new hires: Work for 90 days before asking for a chunk of time off. It’s just a good look. (Some workplaces might require a month of work before you take a vacation.) If there’s a two-week vacation you’re considering, loop your manager into your plan ASAP. Tell them how you’ll get your assignments done and return to work seamlessly. You may want to find yourself a PTO buddy: That’s someone at the company whose vacation time rarely overlaps with yours. They cover for you and you cover for them. Everyone’s back gets scratched.
Finally, set expectations with your team early. Let them know that your inbox will go unanswered. So that you can actually enjoy your mango margarita poolside. You can also help establish those boundaries ahead of time by not bothering anyone else while they’re vacationing.
If you’re a parent, then only using vacation time while your kids are out of school might not add up to enough time off to recharge and refresh. Make sure to use some PTO for activities that truly energize you, like sitting with a book, hiking with a friend, dropping the kids off with your in-laws. Not necessarily taking them to Disney.
Do you have a sick day email template I can use?
No need to fret over email wording when you’re already not feeling your best. We did the work — just copy and paste this into your email or Slack thread, adjust it for your personal situation, then set your out-of-office message.
Dear [MANAGER’S NAME],
Unfortunately, I can’t make it into work today, because [INSERT GENERAL REASON HERE]. I will need to use one of my sick days to [INSERT ACTION]. I will check my email periodically in case anything urgent comes up. Other than that, I hope to be back tomorrow.
What if my time off requests aren’t approved?
Keep at it. Make sure you’re not requesting vacation ad hoc. Consider when other people are likely to request days off (like during the holidays) as well as your job’s busy season. Then do your best to avoid taking too many days off during those times.
If still no dice, then go to HR. Although there’s no federal law requiring that every job grants you vacation time, chances are your employee handbook maps out how and when you can step away. Bring that info when you speak to your HR rep.
Chances are you’ve earned time off from work. So use it. Plan ahead when you can. But feel empowered to take time to tend to your needs. Your health (and your family’s) should come first.
Updated on Apr. 6 to reflect new information.
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