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Yesterday, I was feeling sick. I had a headache and was unusually tired. I wasn't getting any work done, because I couldn't concentrate. However, when I brought this up with my boss, and then left early for the day (one hour and thirty minutes early), I got the distinct impression I had done the wrong thing. Even though he said almost nothing, it was a stressful conversation for me. This was the first time I've done this, so I wasn't sure of what to do.

My reasoning was that going home and sleeping would help me recover by the next day (today, and while I'm still not great, I am much better), whereas staying at work, which I certainly could have done, nothing would have gotten done, anyway.

How sick is sick enough to leave early? When should I just tough it out?

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It's possible that you just didn't interpret his reaction correctly, due to your illness. Also, it's possible that your boss got the impression that you wouldn't be using sick leave/billing for fewer hours worked/making up the time later. –  Matt Nov 16 '12 at 1:33
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...there is also a non-negligible chance that your boss is jerk. But if that's the case, given due time, many other empirical data will face up to support the hypothesis. –  ZJR Nov 16 '12 at 1:58
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Was there any discussion of the 1.5 hour of time to be made up or is this coming out of some sick time you have from the company? This is another factor here that you may want to consider as your boss may wonder how is that time to be handled. –  JB King Nov 16 '12 at 16:07

6 Answers 6

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Here's my guidelines:

  • Contagious? Prime on the list is not infecting others. Coughing, runny nose, vomiting, problems on the ahem other end - not only is it potentially infectious, but it's not usually something that your coworkers want to experience with you. Unless you have a situation where the world will literally fall apart when you are gone, go home.

  • Not at all productive - headaches, feelings of nausea, sheer exhaustion, serious aches & pains, etc. - in many of these cases, you can take an over the counter medication and probably feel better. In that case, try the medication, give it 20 minutes; if in 30 you aren't measurably better and you really can't do anything, take the time - unless you have a situation where people are relying on you for time-sensitive interaction that you simply must get done to meet a schedule. In that case, do what you MUST and then leave.

  • Watch for trends - it's easy to miss that you have fallen into a pattern. Be aware. Hangovers, exhaustion from partying or overcommitting outside of work, and even failure to take the root cause of a medical condition seriously are all cases where changing the trend is important. Both for your personal health and for your career. Also, be aware that if your illness looks repeatedly convenient, it won't be perceived well (regardless of its validity) - managers get burned too often to believe that headaches always occur on Monday morning and Friday afternoon. If this has happened more than once, it's time to consider why you're getting sick.

  • Frequency - Sheer frequency is also a trend - a day out every other month is hardly a problem. A day out every week is a cause for concern. Realize that this is one, in particular, where bosses tend to see things in their own frame of reference. A manager who never gets sick may have a different threshold for frequent illness than a manager who himself has a chronic health issue. Can't say much to fix it, other than sticking with anything written in your corporate policy.

  • Overriding factors - my driver is usually "is someone waiting on me for this?" and "is this for a deadline TODAY?" - if the answer is no, go home. But there will always be cases of needing to tough it out. And realize that sickness today is not really an excuse tomorrow when something is due... most hard deadlines span days or weeks, so an afternoon off should be recoverable in most cases.

  • Work from home? - this is a new enough thing that office conventions vary wildly. I've seen expectations where the sick employee is expected to catch up on work from home if he feels better and it's technically possible, and other cases where attendance during working hours trumped working off hours at home - it depends on both culture and job requirements. Similarly the convention of "do we bug him? He's sick?" has different answers in different companies.

This is as blanket as I can make it, but I'll also say, it's somewhat regional. I'm from the US and I was shocked that a fever was a HUGE deal when I visited India - I had travel arrangements made that got abruptly canceled when my intended host got sick and ran a fever. Within 24 hours he'd been hospitalized because he couldn't keep food down. In the US, I don't think the response would be quite so rapid, but the nature of fever in India is a lot more lethal than it is here.

So - if you happen to be dealing with an international company, it can't hurt to explain why you are sick and why it's serious (if it is serious). Not every boss is going to have the same context for understanding the situation. It's a tricky issue, because in many cases you are NOT legally obligated to explain your health issues to your boss, and in some cases they won't want to know (like almost any female-related situation in almost any culture) - but you don't want a situation where what you are saying is "this is very serious" and what the boss is hearing is "this is no big deal".

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+1, especially for "Watch for trends". And accepted, because it covers more on the topic than any other. –  AlbeyAmakiir Nov 18 '12 at 21:49
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Trends are important. Once I noticed that I was getting sick almost every Wednesday, and that I had been eating lunch at the same place almost every Tuesday. Stopped eating lunch there, and immediately stopped getting sick. Like magic. –  aroth May 26 at 22:51

Different companies and different managers will react differently to this issue.

My policy is "make the adult decision." Your reasoning sounds perfectly fine to me.

As others have pointed out, the way you read your boss's mood was probably a projection of your own guilt at having to leave, possibly combined with his just being busy. A lot of us have that feeling, in the same situation, and it often turns out to be irrational.

But, if your boss genuinely doesn't like it, then he can bring it up with HR. If the company doesn't like it, they can give you a warning and you'll know for next time. Or rather, you'll know to leave that company and go find one where they'll let you make adult decisions ... like an adult.

That said, if it's a headache and it's not caused by something specific, then taking some tablets and going for a walk for half an hour should shift it. If it doesn't then you might want to see a doctor about it.

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This is very dependant on your corporate culture and/or your boss. In general most places want you to leave when you are contagious (or have a major disease or doctor's excuse) and are less likely to want you to leave if you are not. However, a good place will not want you to stay if you are not getting work accomplished particularly if you charge a client for the work.

A headache is a real gray area. If you have been diagnosed with migraines and have a doctor's excuse most will be ok with that, but if you leave frequently for headaches (I had one every day for a year, clearly I had to learn to work with migraines if I wanted to get paid!), that could be a major problem. I would note that people who don't get headaches (and particularly if they have never had a migraine) may not understand how debilitating they can be. They may be thinking they could work when hungover and it was no problem and not understand how much worse a non-alcohol-induced headache can be. (I am not implying your headache was a migraine for instance, but those are the ones I am most familiar with that can certainly be so bad you should not work.)

It will also depend on the current urgency of the work. Right before a major project deadline, people are usually less likely to be happy if you take time off unexpectedly unless it is really major like going to the hospital (or a death in the family). The only times I have seen everyone (no matter their usual stance on taking leave) be supportive of someone taking leave in the final week before a major project happening was when the person's wife got diagnosed with cancer or when a spouse or child died. I have seen many people work right before a deadline even with a cold or the flu especially if they could work from home.

One time of doing this is not likely to be a major black mark even if your boss was unhappy unless you work in a horrible place. Talk it over with him when you return and ask when he thinks it is appropriate to leave and when it is appropriate to stay.

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When I am sick:

  • I cannot concentrate and properly do my job
  • I risk making mistakes
  • I can infect other people
  • I risk aggravating the sickness thus prolonging a longer future absence

All these things suggest I should go home: it will be better for the company in the long term.

In some countries you have a number of days that you can take off without having to justify them. After those days you will need a doctor justification and you should probably ask for justification from people you believe are abusing these days.

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+1 for I can infect other people. This is the #1 reason you should not be at work if you are sick. Hopefully, you can take your laptop and work from home later if you are feeling better. –  richieaj Nov 16 '12 at 16:08

You asked from a "Professionalism" point of view which is really difficult to answer because different companies will have different views.

In general if you can't just up and leave because you are not feeling well, it's not a very good company to work for...

Most companies I've worked for would consider it unprofessional for someone coming down with a cold (this is when they will be at their most contagious) to stay at work. I'd also be surprised if anyone wanted you to stay around if you weren't feeling well unless this happened regularly (More than once every few months would indicate a problem I'd think)

I think you acted appropriately, but when it comes down to it--if you get the feeling that it bothered your boss and you like the job, don't do it again because it probably did bother him. Right and wrong has little to do with what does and doesn't bother people.

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You may just be projecting -- perhaps your boss said nothing because he thought nothing of it. Unless you're bailing in the middle of a last-minute deadline, you have every right to take sick time off. The only exception would be if you have been taking a lot of time off recently, and that would probably require a more in-depth conversation.

If you're feeling guilty, you can always mitigate your absence by offering to make up the hours or work from home, but that's usually not necessary. As others have said, any workplace where sick time is frowned upon is not a place you want to work.

I would have an honest conversation with your boss at some later date, when you've had time to think it over, and ask what he expects as far as taking unannounced time off.

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