A reader asks:
I work for the finance department of a nonprofit. Whenever I call/email in sick, I receive multiple emails from my boss (on my work email) asking me to complete tasks as though I am in the office -- things like making lunch reservations, printing off documents for him, fixing something on his computer, etc. I have to send him multiple messages for him to finally understand that I'm out sick.
When I don't check my work email when I'm out sick, he complains or blames me if something doesn't get taken care of in time, like lunch reservations for that same day. This is the same boss who forgot that I was out on vacation over the holidays and scolded me for not having an out-of-office message (which with our email system only gets sent out the first time you email someone who's out), when in fact I did. He just forgot and thought I just wasn't responding to him.
He seems to get upset whenever I'm out of the office, and I've actually started going in when I'm sick or injured and should probably stay home. I've even gone in against medical advice when I was having severe back problems because I knew it would almost be worse if I stayed home.
I really need this job right now, and I'm worried he'll get upset enough to fire me, even though I'm not in the red on my sick time, and I still have my projects completed on time. How do I get him to respect my sick time?
You're interpreting his behavior as, "you need to work even though you're out sick today," when there's actually a good chance it means, "I've forgotten that you're out sick today, so I'm behaving normally."
To combat that, you can try five things:
1. When you call in sick, say something like this: "I'm sick today and won't be in. I'm going to be sleeping or resting all day and won't be checking email." If he doesn't reliably read his email, leave a voicemail, too.
2. Address the issue directly with him: "I've noticed that when I'm out sick, you'll still send me emails with things you need done that day. Sometimes I've ended up checking email anyway and saw the messages and was able to take care of it, but that isn't always the case, and it makes me worry I can never really take a sick day, which of course isn't realistic. I want to make sure that you're still going to get what you need when I'm out, so can we come up with a plan for those days? I'm thinking that I'll ask Jane to be your contact for X when I'm not here, and that things like Y that don't need to be done that day will wait until I'm back at work. Does that sound right to you?"
3. Assuming there really is a Jane who can help cover for you when you're out, start letting her know when you're going to be out sick too, and ask her to proactively stick her head into your boss's office to remind him she's covering for you that day and to let her know if he needs anything.
4. Then, do not check email while you're out sick -- and probably not while you're on vacation either. You need to retrain him to realize that when you're out, you're actually out. Not in the loop, not working, not available.
5. See if you can change your out-of-office message settings so it goes out every time someone emails you, not just the first time. This guy clearly needs help remembering, and it'll save you some hassle.
But overall, I would address this as a "How can we ensure that Bob remembers I'm out sick?" and not as, "Ack, I have a manager who refuses to let me take a sick day." And even if there's part of him that wishes you'd never take a sick day, addressing it as the former will help reinforce that's not realistic or reasonable.
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