Wellness·7 min read

6 Perfectly Good Reasons to Call Out of Work — and Not Feel Guilty About It

A reminder reads "Sick days were meant to be used" over a women with her hand on her forehead
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Pexels
Jan 24, 2022

When it comes to your job, there’s no such thing as a perfect attendance award. In fact, you should make it a priority to call out of work when you need to — if you have a job that provides PTO. Because you’ve earned those days. And time off can help with your overall health and productivity (see: burnout).

And yet, many people don’t use the time off they’ve earned. According to a Glassdoor survey, 54% of US employees leave half of their PTO on the table. While 66% of people said they worked while on vacation. Reminder: That’s not how vacations should work. The pandemic has only made the situation worse: According to a 2021 poll, more than half of remote workers felt more stressed about taking a sick day last year compared to past years.

If you feel like you’re one of these people, 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 tips for recognizing when you need 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. And in one survey, 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. But Dr. Rubenstein says, “If your body is telling you, ‘I just can’t. I need help here,’ then take work off the table.” 

And there’s no need to over-explain your issues — whether your own or a family member’s — 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. Then actually follow through on that promise. 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. 

You’re grieving or caring for a family member who is…

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.” Note: 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. And 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. But take sick days for anything else, particularly if you anticipate feeling foggy after your appointment.

You need a mental health break…

Depending on your work culture, taking a ‘mental health day’ could be a legit reason to call out, no questions asked. And if that term isn’t cool in your company, you could just say you’re “investigating a health matter,” says Wakeman. Regardless, you shouldn’t wait until you’re completely burned out to step away. Instead, Dr. Rubenstein suggests looking at your calendar and requesting those brain breaks weeks ahead of time. Think: 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. And remember: An unexpected mental health episode like a spike in depressive symptoms or a panic attack is another story. 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. Fun stuff (not) like renewing a driver’s license or getting a passport photo. But rather than putting an ambiguous hold on your calendar so you can check those errands off, give your team a heads up. And try to do it during a slow time at work. That normalizes running errands. Something that people actually do more often than taking lunch breaks. 

You’re taking vacation…

Four words: 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. But don’t let your workaholic colleague convince you to bank your vacay (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 (not good), or they think it'll set them back at work (probably not true), says Wakeman. And even employees with “unlimited” vacation plans don’t always take advantage. 

But 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. And many employers actually encourage workers to get away because it means they’re more likely to return feeling refreshed and less stressed. Aka there’s a better chance they’ll stay at the job longer (see: The Great Resignation).

How do I take a real vacation from work?

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. Pro tip: You’re going to 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. And 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. One other note about vacations: 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. So make sure to use some PTO for activities that truly energize you. Think: sitting with a book, hiking with a friend, dropping the kids off with your in-laws. Not necessarily taking them to Disney.

And if my time off requests aren’t ever 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. And 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. Because your health (and your family’s) should come first.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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