How to use your sick days strategically

Amber Shiflett |
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Have you ever been stuck with a coughing, phlegmy coworker? Or maybe you’ve been said phlegmy coworker? Either way, nobody wins when people work sick. 

Employers offer paid sick days to their employees for that very reason. The purpose of sick time is to let you stay at home when you can’t work. It also keeps everyone in the office from catching your cooties, keeping the workplace in ship shape by quarantining sick employees. 

But there’s a problem: how do you plan your paid sick leave? What if you get the flu and are out for a week? What are you supposed to do for the rest of the year? 

Fear not! Here’s a quick rundown on how to use your sick days strategically. 

1. Know your sick leave policies

When it’s time to plan your sick days, always start with the employee handbook. This bland but important document will tell you how your boss handles sick time. Look over your handbook to see:

  • Is paid sick leave part of your employee benefits? 

  • Does your boss want a doctor's note if you're out sick? 

  • Does your employer lump together PTO and sick time? 

  • How do you accrue sick days—per pay period, or at the beginning of the year? 

  • Do your unused sick days roll over, or is it a use-’em-or-lose-’em deal? 

However your workplace handles sick leave, you need to know what’s in the manual. This is going to affect your sick time strategy. For example, if you can’t roll your sick days over at the end of the calendar year, you can schedule preventive care appointments in November or December to use up your remaining days. 

2. What does “sick” mean to you (and your boss)? 

After you know your official policies, it’s time to look at workplace culture. What does “sick” mean at your company? Does your boss take off when she has the stomach flu or a simple cold? Or does she power through regardless? 

You have to be the judge of whether you shouldn’t go to work. There’s a big difference between a mild cold and the full-blown flu, after all. Consider three things to decide if you should take a sick day: 

  • Are you contagious? If so, for the love of Pete, please stay home, even if you think you feel okay to work. 

  • Is your sickness so bad that you can’t focus on anything but how sick you are? That sounds horrible, and you should take the day off. 

  • Are you taking care of a family member or sick child? If so, you pretty much need to take the sick day, even if you yourself aren’t sick. 

3. Ration your days ahead of time

Try to ration your sick days for the entire year. This is easier if you accrue sick days with every pay period, but it’s hard if you get them all at the start of the year. 

Do you have any procedures or surgeries scheduled this year? Or do you tend to get sick at a certain time every year? If so, budget your sick leave for when you think you’ll need it. This way, if you get bronchitis every winter, you’ll have enough sick leave to cover it. 

What if you’ve used all your sick time? 

So, what are you supposed to do if you’ve used all your sick time? You have a couple of options. 

First, you can ask if working from home is an option. This is more popular in office environments (you can’t work from home as a fry cook). But only ask for remote work if you feel mentally clear enough to do your work. 

Second, if remote work isn’t an option and you’ve used all your time, take unpaid leave instead. You’re still allowed to take the day off if you’re sick; it just means you won’t get paid for it. We know this sucks, but it’s better than going to work miserable. 

Keep in mind that some states have paid sick leave laws, which might help you out here. 

The bottom line

Sick employees cost businesses money; that’s why your boss gives you sick time. So use it! Follow these three tips to make the most of your sick leave. If you have a qualifying health condition, you can also apply for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to help with chronic absences. 

But what happens if your company doesn’t like people taking their sick time? That’s a problem. Healthy companies want healthy employees. If you want a job that has a strong culture and happy employees, check out these four employers.