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'How Much Detail Should I Go Into When I'm Calling In Sick?'

If you’re dealing with a decent employer, you don't need to 'prove' you're sick enough—and that goes for mental health, too.
Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

My friends and I (all 25ish, fairly new to the working world) are divided on how to call in sick. Mainly, how much detail are you supposed to go into about what is wrong with you? ("I'm not feeling well"? "I have a cold"? "I was up all night with terrible diarrhea"?) Also, is it legal for your boss to make you give them a ton of detail about what's wrong with you or request a doctor's note?

We're also divided over how to take a mental health day. Are you supposed to lie about the real reason and fake a physical illness? One friend made the point that lying about taking a mental health day contributes to the stigma surrounding mental health issues, which I thought was a good point. Why *is* it OK to say you had the flu, but bad to say you had a panic attack?


This is the kind of question that managers have no idea people agonize over… but they really do, as your question shows. Here’s the deal when you call in sick: You don’t need to go into detail about your illness. You manager doesn’t need to know that you’re projectile vomiting, or having excruciating cramps, or are broken out in hives. All you need to say is that you’re sick and won’t be in.

How to say it:

  • “I’m sick today and will need to stay home.”
  • “I’m under the weather and will be taking a sick day today.”
  • “I’m sick today and won’t be in.”

That’s it!

Sometimes people feel obligated to give details because they think they need to justify the time off. But your manager isn’t your doctor, so more information about your illness isn't relevant to them. You don’t need to prove that you’re sick enough, at least if you’re dealing with a decent employer.

There are some exceptions to this. If you’re calling in sick at a particularly bad time, like the day of a big event, it’s smart to give more context so your boss knows you’re not being cavalier about the timing (food poisoning will be understandable; a minor cold probably won’t be). If you’ve been missing a ton of work lately, it can be helpful to provide more info so your boss doesn’t think you’re just playing hooky. And if you’re going to be out more than a day or two, letting your boss know a bit more can help her plan. Even then, your details could be something like “the flu” or “medical tests,” not a full rundown of symptoms and attempted treatments. (In fact, even if your employer requires doctor’s notes when you’re out sick—a ridiculous but legal practice—the note doesn’t need to provide details about your illness, just that you are ill.)


You also don't need to give details if what’s going on is mental health–related. “I’m out sick today” covers all of it.

Also, as a side note: For a long time, “mental health day” has been used colloquially to mean I cannot bear the thought of going to work today (as opposed to referring to an actual mental health condition). So definitely don’t tell your boss you’re “taking a mental health day,” as that might inadvertently convey, “I don’t feel like coming to work.”

The reality is there is still a stigma around mental health struggles, and being open with your boss about yours can end up harming you professionally (for example, your manager deciding you wouldn’t be able to handle the pressures of a promotion). That’s highly problematic and we should all work to change this, but in the interim, it’s something to factor into your thinking. Luckily, if you have a good boss, it should be mostly moot—because a blanket “I’m sick today” should cover you.

All that said, it’s worth noting that there are some bad managers out there who will expect you to justify the time off to them. And, legally, they’re allowed to do that. (Well, mostly. If the reason for your absence is a medical condition that’s protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they’re not allowed to ask for information beyond what’s “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” More on this here.) If you’re stuck with one of those managers, be as vague as you can get away with, and feel free to rename medical conditions you’d rather keep private (for example, explosive diarrhea or a panic attack might become “a stomachache" or "a pounding headache”). Managers who are determined to violate your privacy for no good work-related reason forfeit any right to an honest account.

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.