What to say when you call in sick – even if you're working from home

In order to control the Omicron Covid-19 variant, new restrictions have been put in place in England – including an order to return working from home (WFH).

Millions of workers will have to dust off their desks and plug in their monitors, just months after the first WFH order was lifted in July.

Although remote and hybrid working has become a normality – and preference – for many, some etiquette is yet to be established.

You might skip out on a day in the office if you have a bad cold or a migraine, but what do you do if you’re already at home? Can you still take time off?

Human resource association Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) told Metro.co.uk that more than three-quarters of employers have observed ‘presenteeism’ – people working when unwell – in employees WFH in the last year.

With the help from experts, Metro.co.uk explains your sick day rights when working remotely – and what to do if you need a mental health day.

Can you take a sick day when working from home?

Yes – you are totally entitled to take some time off when sick, even when working from home.

Regardless of if you are in the office or remote working, sick days are necessary to help you recover.

Even if you are at home, you are still using an incredible amount of energy to do your job – whether that is taking Zoom meetings, writing emails, or crunching numbers.

Rachel Suff, Senior Employment Relations Adviser at the CIPD, suggested that the reason people are less likely to call in sick when working from home is because of the ‘blurred boundaries between work and home life’.

Although some have found a perceived increase in work/life balance when home working, as they have more time to spend in their own personal sphere, there are many that struggle with having their office in their home.

A 2020 study by Novotel found that four in 10 employees say their lifestyle has deteriorated due to being based at home.

The reason this can impact your likelihood of calling in sick is that we have been conditioned to see our home as our workspace, rather than a place of rest.

The same study by Novotel found that 29% of participants found it more difficult to switch off from their work when they’re based at home.

Your home should not be equated to your workspace. If you are at home to rest, you need to actually rest, not hop online to reply to some emails.

Ms Suff explains that another possible reason is down to job security.

She says, ‘Work-related stresses such as increased workloads and worries related to job security may mean people feel as though they can’t take a sick day when they’re working from home.’

Around one million Brits lost their job during the pandemic, and so it is understandable that workers may feel like they have to prove to their boss that they aren’t slacking off and ‘pulling sickies’, or else risk being laid off.

However, if you are legitimately sick, then the Citizens Advice Bureau states that your employer cannot fire you for taking sick days – this is known as an ‘unfair dismissal’, and can be taken to court.

Ms Suff emphasises that it is really important that people take time off when they are unwell so they can get better.

What to say when you call in sick

Stacey Mead, HR Director at HR Dept, explains that procedures for reporting absence should be the same for WFH as when working in the office.

She told Metro.co.uk, ‘Ensure that you follow any reporting procedures as outlined in your contract, staff handbook or absence policies – or as your manager has advised you.’

Typically, this first involves you calling your boss, HR manager, or line manager as early as possible to tell them you won’t be able to work due to illness.

Most workplaces will have a deadline time that you have to call in by for it to be counted as a sick day, but in general, the earlier you call the better.

It may seem like a gross invasion of your privacy, but your manager or boss is allowed to ask you what is wrong.

They may also have many follow-up questions such as; what are the symptoms? When do you think you will be better? When will you return to work?

You are not obliged to tell your employers details of your illness that are private or sensitive.

You should also notify your employer of what work needs to be picked up because of your absence.

An absence longer than seven days will require a statement from the employee’s doctor stating that they are not fit to work and the reasons why.

Why it’s important to take a mental health day

Ultimately, it is important to take a day off for your mental health because it is just as important to care for your mental wellbeing as your physical.

Ms Mead explained to Metro.co.uk, ‘Poor mental health is no different to poor physical health.

‘If employees don’t take care of their own mental health – which they have a responsibility to do – it can lead to long term problems and possibly longer term absences.’

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Sally Baker, Senior Therapist from Working on the Body, explained that people are less unlikely to take necessary mental health days because of ‘stigma’.

She told Metro.co.uk, ‘The stigma of poor mental health is alive and well, whether you WFH or back in the office.’

Ms Baker said that people would rather fake a physical illness than admit to their boss that they need time off to take care of their mental health.

However, you are entitled to take necessary time off to care for your mental wellbeing, and so you need to have the courage to enact that right.

Ms Mead agrees, explaining that the onus should be on the workplace to ensure that mental health days are destigmatised, rather than on the employee.

She said, ‘Employers have a responsibility to ensure that employees feel that they can discuss their mental health without fear of stigma.

‘We saw a huge increase in concerns about employees wellbeing since the start of the pandemic and there has been so much work to raise awareness of mental health recently, but more can be done.

‘Employees may not feel comfortable enough to share specifics about the reason for their absence but the more open they can be, the more support an employer will be able to give.’

Ms Baker said that many of her clients do not seem to realise that their workplaces offer counselling or mental health support – or, if they do, they are concerned about using it in case it ‘goes back to their HR department’.

It is important to know that you should not be judged for struggling with your mental health.

If you feel that you have been discriminated against due to your mental health concerns, such as being denied a promotion or being made redundant, then you should contact your HR department.

You can also call mental health charity Mind’s legal line on 0300 466 6463.

If you are in need of help, you should find out what systems your workplace has to give you the support you need.

What should you say to your boss when you need to take a sick day for mental health?

It might be difficult, but it is best to be totally honest and transparent with your boss.

Explain how you are feeling, and that you believe it will impact your quality of work.

Your boss might ask for a few details, as they would with a physical illness, but remember that you are not obligated to relay anything too personal or insensitive.

Let your boss know what work needs to be covered in our absence, and give them an indicator of when you can get back to work – if you have any indication.

While on the phone, you should also ask your boss what mental health support is available at your workplace.

You can also discuss possible short or long-term adjustments will help you at work in the future, such as flexible working hours, a promise to keep hybrid working in place, temporarily re-allocating tasks you find stressful, or even just regular catch-up calls.

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.

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