I have a mental health condition that pretty much never surfaces on medication. Sometimes though, usually triggered by some sudden change in life or conflict in relationships, the effects can creep back. This happened the other night and I felt unsafe going to work yesterday, so I called out sick, simply announcing to my team that I wasn't feeling well.

I have some wonderfully friendly and supportive coworkers, and tomorrow they're sure to ask how I'm feeling, and inadvertently, what it was, e.g. "Did you catch the cold that's going around the office? Are you all better now?"

I actually don't feel unsafe revealing my condition to coworkers if I had to, as I work for a relatively with-the-times, mental-health-aware company (which is why I'm also not too scared to ask this question on a public forum like this). I just don't feel like actively revealing it. I don't want to be a mental health awareness hero.

But I am really not great with lying or being quick on my feet with responses. I don't want to look sketchy tomorrow, recovering 100% in a day after claiming to have gotten so sick I couldn't even log in from home. In the past I've used excuses like "mild food poisoning." I have also pretended to still be a little sick the next day. I don't mean to lie but I'm just not very graceful at trying to keep my privacy while also not raising suspicion or making well-meaning coworkers feel weird they asked.

Is there a more tactful route I can take that doesn't involve (as much) lying? Or maybe just, an acceptable lie that might not cause me to feel as guilty?


Edit

Something I failed to mention is that working from home is a widely-used and supported option in my company, everyone having unlimited sick days and bringing laptops home. This is what compels me to express that I'm indeed "sick" enough that I can't even log in from home. Which is why it then feels weird to me to come back the next day, seemingly fine.

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    Can't you just say that you are better now? There is no lie in that – Mawg Feb 8 at 15:12
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    Can you just say "I took a mental day"? (Or, if not, what's wrong with saying that?) – HopelessN00b Feb 8 at 16:44
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    @JimmyJames yeah, that’s what I was getting at. People take “mental health days” all the time for reasons having nothing to do with mental illness... why not ride that implication? – HopelessN00b Feb 8 at 22:54
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    If you don't want to reveal anything, you might want to change your login name on stackexchange and remove the mention of your employer. Your question is now a "Hot network question" and will get many views. – Eric Duminil Feb 9 at 8:41
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    I'd consider using a pseudonym when asking questions here as you're discussing a very personal issue. – Nobilis Feb 11 at 16:39
up vote 167 down vote accepted

Usually for me, the following simple phrase suffices:

I wasn't feeling too great yesterday, but am feeling a bit better today. Thank you for asking

As your coworkers are supportive, the odds are they want to know that you're OK - you don't need to disclose any more than that to them.

If you show gratitude for their concern and indicate that you're feeling better, most people won't pry any further - and if they do, you're perfectly within your rights to say that you're feeling better but don't really fancy going into the details of what was wrong.

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    This. Your coworkers ultimately aren't necessarily trying to pry, they're trying to show compassion and look out for your well being, which is a positive. – Matthew FitzGerald-Chamberlain Feb 8 at 15:37
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    @MatthewFitzGerald-Chamberlain - Agreed! And it's because I know they simply care about me, that I don't want to respond impersonally, e.g. "That's none of your business." I'm really just looking for a better way to communicate; definitely not at odds with any party. – Andrew Cheong Feb 8 at 16:42
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    @Fattie: I don't see where the OP claimed to have seen a doctor. Why do you think they did? Is there a comment I missed somewhere? – Mooing Duck Feb 8 at 21:37
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    Also, a lot of people ask how you are out of politeness and don't actually really want to know the details, so a short response is usually enough. – rooby Feb 9 at 9:38
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    if they're asking about a cold that's going around, you could add "I don't want to go into details but I can tell you it wasn't contagious - and I'm glad to be back to work!" Usually people assume it's food poisoning of some kind. – Megan Sullivan Feb 9 at 19:07

Is there a more tactful route I can take that doesn't involve (as much) lying?

It is none of their business, do not lie about it.

Lying is never a good idea, and almost always comes back to bite you. I would urge you to simply say "I was not feeling well, but I feel fine today." and then change the conversation with another line like "Did I miss anything yesterday?"

There are plenty of 24 hour illnesses that can be used to fill up the rumor mill, but I would not worry about this. Stick to the line above and do not elaborate.

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    I would suggest referring to your company handbook too though. There's plenty of places that do strange things about frequency vs. duration of absence. Such that it can actually be better to take 2 days off, instead of 1, because it 'counts the same (or even slightly lower) because of the formula they use. – Sobrique Feb 8 at 13:41
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    @Sobrique If the OP needs to worry about frequency vs duration of absence, they probably also need to be talking to their line manager and/or HR about the existence of their condition. – Martin Bonner Feb 9 at 8:35
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    There are plenty of 24 hour illnesses this. I occasional suffer from migraine, due to a light sensitivity issue, that's so bad I barely can keep my eyes open or become sick to my stomach. It usually goes away after a night of sleep. I once even got a very high fever (40°C) which was gone in less than 24 hours. – r41n Feb 9 at 8:44
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    @r41n ouch, that sucks. A friend of mine suffers from the cluster version of migraines....double ouch. – Mister Positive Feb 9 at 12:00
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    I can't see what repercussions there would be from lying in this case though. Generally if you insert a common illness no further questions are asked. Most employees are really not that interested in what particular affliction you had to be absent, unless it is very frequent or you were away for a long time. Being evasive might actually make them more curious and more likely to spread rumours. – Crazymoomin Feb 11 at 13:17

You do not have to disclose anything. But, if you just don't tell anything, everybody will suspect their own thing and it can start rumors. So this is one of the edge cases where I would suggest a harmless lie, as it is the best for all involved:

One day => terrible headache!

There is nothing more to tell about that, there are no after-effects like with a cold etc. and you can even prime the next event by telling you sometimes get those when really stressed.

I am in a similar position where I've had to take several days off to attend counselling sessions and to see my GP. The only person at my company who knows - as far as I know - is the HR department. The people I work with don't know.

I have had time off, and I've just said I've gone to the hospital for check ups. One person asked more questions about it, and I simply said that I appreciate the interest but it's not something I want to discuss as it's private.

"I had a medical condition flare up yesterday. Usually it's fine, and it seems fine again now. Yesterday was just an odd day, rather unusually bad. It's good to be back."

This actually gives a lot of details about your personal experience, without a trace of the "mental" aspect of the situation. Since you are regularly taking medicine, that doesn't sound dishonest at all.

If they press:

"Truthfully I prefer not to get into those details with co-workers. I'm fine now, though, and expect to be good for some time."

Here's a way of telling a coworker that you needed a time off for mental health-related reasons, without revealing the "mental" aspect of it.
It's a strategy I used myself, and worked great.

I have a neurological condition that is usually not a problem, but at times it may become prominent and requires my attention. But it's nothing too concerning. I'm alright. Thank you for asking!

Perhaps replace "neurological" by "health", at your discretion. The key here is not mentioning "mental".

Presumably, your condition is a neuropsychiatric one, so you are not lying.

If your coworker still asks about what it is, exactly - which is a bit unlikely, since you implicitly avoiding being too specific should be taken as a hint - you may just say something among the lines of:

Ah, I don't feel like talking about it right now, I'm sure you understand. But no need to worry about it, really.


In fact, when I said this after returning to work at my previous workplace, one of my most intimate colleagues asked me, in private, if I'd mind telling him specifically what problem it was, and I saw no reason not to. In my case, it was major depressive disorder, which he happened to know about, more than I anticipated.

It should be enough to just say "I was feeling unwell, but I'm doing better today!"

If a coworker presses the question and you don't mind sharing a little, responding with a partial truth like "I didn't sleep at all, but I managed to catch up somewhat" might be enough to assuage your coworkers' curiosity. (But I'd avoid saying anything false!)

As a general strategy, if you want personal details to stay personal, try to avoid sharing personal details in other situations. If one of your coworker normally sends detailed emails like

I'm down with TB, expect me back in 30 days o.O

or

Both kids are sick with stomach flu. Better up than down at least! Back tomorrow!

then sending a mail like

Sick. Not sure if I'll be better tomorrow..."

will probably invite curiosity. (This strategy applies to other personal leaves -- if don't want to reveal that you're taking a personal day to marathon both LOTR trilogies, don't broadcast details for other vacations you're taking.)

I'd suggest spinning it as "I had a severe headache" (or migraine). It fits right along the lines of something in your brain/head area that was affecting you, rather than revealing the true reason. You're also less likely to show 'tell signs' that you're lying, as opposed to claiming something completely different like "I had a house fire".

As an alternative to all the other answers so-far, consider giving a reply that distracts and redirects attention from the underlying cause of your day out of the office.

You could say something short like

I was windsurfing with the visiting Maharaja.

or a longer shaggy dog story, where you can be creative.

The point is to retarget interest onto something else and away from you without giving the real reason for the gap in attendance.


"but that's lying?!" I hear you think. Instead, consider it a Tall Tale (wikipedia).

The purpose is to re-aim the questioner's interest onto something else, and ideally forget about their question of "why were you not at work yesterday?"

  • @AndyT this stack seems to suffer from a lack of variety in answers. So far it has received { unwell, unwell, don't lie, private, unwell , unknown } as answers, which are all kinda similar. So here's a completely different reply. Isn't SE about getting a selection of answers to vote on? And a workplace without a bit of banter is a boring place to work. – Criggie Feb 9 at 18:06
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    I don't mind the downvotes - but you are encouraged to make a comment when downvoting. Feel free to say whats wrong. – Criggie Feb 11 at 9:07
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    What's missing: the why. What do you gain by doing that? I think I understand your point and if you are usually the leader in the group and everyone listens to you in the break, telling a nice story can be good. But I don't think that a) the OP does that (otherwise he won't ask here) and b) that the situation is more if someone asks him directly. Those people are usually not interested in a long story but wanna be polite and may just care about him. No need to bore them with a long lie. – Mayou36 Feb 11 at 13:25
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    @Mayou36 fair enough - This probably highlights the difference in workplace cultures across the world. The american offices in my company appear to be particularly adversarial, battling for position and not giving away "weaknesses" whereas the european and southern ones seem to be less combative. Every other answer appears to be minimising the information shared and hiding the reason for OP's day off. – Criggie Feb 12 at 0:19
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    @Criggie, the cultural difference could be the crucial point. I think this answers the why. I would propose you to add this to your answer, for which environment and kind of personality this works. – Mayou36 Feb 12 at 11:01

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