Sick leave policies vary greatly from state to state and from company to company.
Some companies offer a fixed number of sick days annually, others do not. Some employers require a doctor’s note for every single day taken, others request it only for long-term sick leaves.
Whether someone is sick or not, any manager needs to know why an employee is absent from work.
And the employees are obliged to provide some explanation.
This instantly raises a sensitive question. If you are sick, how much information do you really need to share about your health condition? Especially if you have something more serious than a common cold.
Many people prefer to say simply “I am taking the day off sick today” and are reluctant to share any specific health information with their supervisors.
Generally, it’s more polite to provide at least a general idea of what has happened to you and how long you expect to stay away from work. Say, you have a bad cold and need to spend a couple of days in bed.
For one thing, managers have to make sure that their team members have valid reasons for staying at home.
For another, if it’s a long-term leave, managers will need to redistribute workloads within the team. For example, find someone to cover the sick employee’s work while they are having a medical treatment.
The big question is, can managers really require health details from their employees? Is it a lawful behaviour? And if lawful, is it humane?
Discussing personal health has always been a sensitive issue.
But nowadays, with all the data protection laws and sophisticated work ethics, managers are literally walking in the minefield.
Let’s look at some considerations to keep in mind:
Ask no more than required by business necessity. As we discussed earlier, a manager needs to know what’s wrong and when an employee will return to work. Pushing beyond these questions may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or similar legislation which protects employees with a serious medical condition. It’s impossible to tell whether your situation will be ADA-related or not — so to be safe, stick to the same policy with everyone.
Tame your curiosity. Most likely, a manager doesn’t hold a professional medical degree and doesn’t really need to know each and every detail of the employee’s condition. Idle curiosity will only undermine trust between workers and the boss. Remember that in cases of privacy violation, an employee can also seek legal action.
Speaking of health — keep your work environment healthy. Treat your coworkers as responsible adults, and do not insist on sharing their medical issues with you. Most people won’t feel comfortable when asked to share more than they chose to.
No one (except for your mom) cares about your lab test results, medical prescriptions and X-ray images, so leave them aside.
What your boss might be concerned about is an abuse of the employee sick leave policy, or lack of available resources when they are most needed.
So why don’t you act on that knowledge?
Employees. When the boss asks you why you are absent, describe your condition in a couple of words and say when you expect to return to work. It is totally okay if you use general words (flu, sore back, or a migraine) instead of citing your exact diagnosis (all those –itis or –osis terms).
Managers. When an employee calls in sick, don’t be too inquisitive about their health condition. Ask only job-related questions, for instance, to plan your team’s work or adjust deadlines. On a related note, do whatever possible to avoid potential privacy violations — for example, stay aware of the local data protection and sick leave laws.
HR. Regardless of the sick leave policy, you have in your organization, tracking absences over email is not very efficient. Employ up-to-date software solutions to manage employees' absences. An overview of who’s absent from work will also help managers plan workloads of their teams.
You might be wondering whether employers have the right to ask staff for details of their sick leave.
While sick leave policies may vary among the organizations, employees’ health information stays a sensitive personal issue.
It is protected by a number of privacy and data protection laws.
However, when a worker calls in sick, it is actually legal for the employer to ask for reasons of their absence.
To stay within legal bounds — and keep a good relationship with colleagues, — managers should only ask job-related questions, for example when a worker plans to be back at work.
The same principle works for employees too. It’s best to provide only general information on your condition, providing more context when you’re expecting to stay out sick for a longer time. You should bring a doctor’s note though if you are required to.
And finally, if you are not comfortable with revealing certain medical information about yourself, you have the full right not to share these details.