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How to call in sick

Have you ever come to work sick?

If so, how sick?

I realized I had a problem in this area when my cubicle mate, a nurse in a previous professional life, suggested I see a doctor about my persistent cough. Good call: Turns out I had either walking pneumonia or whooping cough -- without a chest x-ray it's impossible to tell -- and needed an antibiotic, pronto.

I can't speak for all of the 83 percent of American workers who, according to a 2007 poll by ComPsych Corporation, have hauled themselves into work when they were sick.

But I can say that part of my problem was that I was seriously stumped by that one little phone call -- you know, the one where you tell your boss you're weak and useless and riddled with hostile microbes?

Can't imagine why I'd choose to skip that.

With cold season approaching, I asked Ed Holton, the Jones S. Davis Distinguished Professor of Human Resource, Leadership, and Organization Development at Louisiana State University, what I should do next time I'm laid low by a major symptom. The short answer: Be up-front with my boss.

"People shouldn't be afraid to take care of themselves," Holton said.

It may also be a comfort to know that the bad old days when sick days were severely frowned upon are, for the most part, history. Workplaces have become more accommodating, Holton says, and there's a growing awareness that coming in sick puts other workers at risk.

In 2007, the CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey found that 38 percent of employers see presenteeism -- or working while sick -- as a problem in their organizations.

As for the nuts and bolts of making that awkward call, Holton advises that you:

Phone, don't e-mail. While e-mail may seem easier, some bosses will find a phone call more credible.

Keep it simple. Say you're sick and, if you can, add a little more detail without divulging anything private. "I've got the flu and I'm running a fever," is good. Your boss doesn't have to know whether your flu is intestinal.

Be your (sick) self. This isn't the time to strive for perky and upbeat. "If you feel like hell and sound like hell," so much the better, Holton says.

Do a little something. If at all possible, answer some e-mails or do some work at home.

Offer more information as needed. If you're out for a few days, your boss needs a reason and maybe a diagnosis: "I have strep throat and it's highly contagious." Again, keep the disclosures to a minimum.

But what about you? Do you feel comfortable taking a badly needed sick day?

How do you break the news to your boss?

Office Hours appears weekly in TribU. If you have a work-related question – and remember, no question is too serious or too silly – send a note to Nara Schoenberg at nschoenberg@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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