always out

What to Do With Employees Calling in Sick Too Often

Nate Hindman

Employees say the darndest things when they call in sick. “A bear is in my yard and I’m afraid to leave my house” and “I’m not sure how the solar eclipse is going to affect me, so it may be safer to stay home” were among the least believable sick-day excuses heard by company managers polled in a recent survey by CareerBuilder.

Nearly 3 in 5 employees who have paid time off programs said they felt they had to make up an excuse for taking the day off. This is despite 54% of employees working for companies with a paid time off program that rolls sick, vacation and personal days together.

And while it’s not uncommon for employees to occasionally call out sick when they’re actually fine, almost every small business has one or two sick-day abusers with too many call outs.

Here’s How to Deal With Employees Calling in Sick Too Often

Not Sure What to Do When an Employee Keeps Calling in Sick? Merge “Sick” Days With “Vacation” Days

To curb employees always calling in sick to work, a growing number of companies now allow employees a specified number of paid days off for any purpose—that is, both sick time and vacation time are considered the same thing and consolidated into one paid leave package. This is typically called Paid Time Off, or PTO for short.

By doing so, employers effectively reward employees who don’t have frequent illnesses and discourage employees from taking sick days off when they’re not actually sick.

With such a policy in place, sick-day abusers may think twice before calling in because the absences cut into what could be their vacation. This is usually an effective way to deal with an employee who is always sick.

Employee Keeps Calling In Sick Reasons For Calling In Sick

Doing Away With Voicemails Can Keep Employees From Calling in Sick Too Often

One of the ways employees calling in sick too often abuse sick time is if they don’t have to speak with a supervisor and can simply get out of work by firing off an email or leaving a groggy-toned voicemail.

With this being the case, employers should require workers, especially those whose attendance record is sub-par, to speak directly to an immediate supervisor when they call in sick. Do not let employees call—no voicemail, no text—they must speak to someone.

Employee Keeps Calling In Sick States That Require Employee Leave

Explore an Unlimited Vacation Policy, Get Rid of Sick Days for Part-Time Employees and Full Time Staff

It’s clear when employees can take days off from work, it leads to increased productivity. An unlimited vacation policy means your employees don’t have a bank of time to accrue or a set amount of days per year they can take off. Before you start worrying the policy could be abused, some companies found employees take the same amount of time off as they usually do after an unlimited vacation program was put into effect. It could be the makings of a very healthy workplace.

So, what’s the benefit of an unlimited policy? Increasing morale and building a culture of trust between you and your employees. Removing sick days for part-time employees and replacing them with vacation days encourages trust in your employees. Do the same for employees who are full time.

Employee Keeps Calling Sick Merge Sick Days

Relax Your Policies, It Can Reduce the Average Number of Sick Days Taken Per Employee

This one is a little counter-intuitive. But it’s possible that your strict sick-leave policy is actually having the reverse effect and causing employees to skip out on work instead of preventing unscheduled absenteeism.

Studies show the majority of workers who call in sick at the last minute do so for reasons other than physical illness, citing personal needs and stress as chief reasons for taking time off.

Workplace flexibility, on the other hand, has been shown to reduce worker stress. In other words, giving employees more freedom, so long as their share of work gets completed, makes staff more appreciative of the company and less likely to take advantage of paid leave policies, whether they are a part-time employee or full-time employee.

Employee Keeps Calling Sick Checklist

My Employees Keep Calling in Sick Too Often, Time To Talk

Okay, you’ve merged sick time with vacation time, done away with voicemails and boosted morale by increasing workplace flexibility, but there are still sick-day abusers at the company. There is such a thing as preventative care, but if the average number of sick days taken per employee is still high, or you have a select few employees calling in sick to work too often, it’s time to take them aside for a sit-down and let them know that you’ve noticed the days off.

Emily Dusablon, an advisor at Insperity, a provider of HR services, suggests asking employees whether there’s any reason, in particular, that is causing the absences.

“Maybe you’re not aware of an underlying condition,” Dusablon says. “Maybe the employee needs a schedule adjustment or accommodation based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Don’t assume you know all the facts until you have talked with the employee.”

Make sure you familiarize yourself with both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Employee Keeps Calling In Sick Talk To Your Employee

When It Comes to How to Deal With an Employee Who Is Always Sick, Know The Law

If, after a sit-down, the absenteeism persists, and you choose to act, it’s necessary to first consider the laws associated with paid sick leave.

For instance, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, certain employers are required to offer their employees leave to care for themselves or sick family members. Also, make sure you know the law for sick days for part-time employees as well.

Employee Keeps Calling In Sick Review Absence Policy

Determining if an employee’s circumstances qualify them for such legal protections, or if employers are on the hook for paying them during such times, is typically where things get sticky. In most cases, the safest bet is to consult an attorney before withholding pay or firing an excessively absent employee.

Next Steps: Imagine a world where your employees show up on time, work smart and deliver results for your small business day in and day out. Not there yet? Sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter and we’ll send you the best science-backed strategies on managing productive, happy employees—including tips on how to get them to show up on time!

What are your thoughts on PTO issues? Let us know in the comments.

22 Responses to "What to Do With Employees Calling in Sick Too Often"
    • Mary Johnson | September 28, 2022 at 7:52 pm

      I work for a company that is disorganized, and the customers come in throngs, treat the employees like they are servants. Sudden change of website, and now we do not have the ability to access our time off requests, or preferred availability. They are scheduling part timers, full time schedules. There used to be a select-a-schedule based on seniority, and recently they’ve just been plugging people in wherever they want. Requests on updates on promises of raises, incentives, are severely delayed. So I called in sick today, and extended my weekend into a three-day weekend. We deserve better.

    • MR | November 9, 2021 at 11:13 pm

      I have conditions protected by the ADA law, but that doesn’t mean I won’t get fired or demoted for calling out too often because of my disabilities. What’s wrong with this entire idea is that companies own people. People don’t need to prioritize their jobs for any reason, ever. So what if someone calls out often, maybe they’re dealing with something. If they’re calling out often because they hate their job, then that’s something the company needs to work on, not the employee. Demanding medical proof is also expensive, and I’m certain a majority of companies aren’t paying their employees enough to get a doctor’s note or prescriptions.

      • Mary Johnson | September 28, 2022 at 7:54 pm


    • Antonio | July 25, 2021 at 12:22 am

      We have a small business. Had a guy work for us who called on average twice a month sick…. Funny thing was it was always a Friday or a Monday he was sick.

    • Victor Mays | February 9, 2021 at 11:13 am

      Finally, information that I can really follow! Thank you so much.

      • Small Biz Ahead | February 9, 2021 at 2:37 pm

        You’re welcome, Victor. Glad the article was useful.

    • Easton | January 13, 2021 at 1:45 pm

      I am not a manager, I am a lower-level employee, but my co-worker calls in sick almost every week, and my company is not doing anything to fix this issue because of COVID. While it is very understandable to call out for displaying some symptoms associated with COVID, it is not okay to take advantage of COVID to call out every week. My co-worker calls out every week, and our company is not doing anything about it. His calling out has caused a lot of scheduling problems at my workplace, and this results in our branch being short staffed most of the time. Some employees even ended up changing their personal schedule just to cover for this person. As an employee, I feel like I have no power to bring this to management. Why won’t management do anything to fix this? I understand that every employee should feel comfortable calling out during sickness, but it is NOT okay to take advantage of lax calling out policies.

      • Small Biz Ahead | January 14, 2021 at 3:30 pm

        Thanks for sharing!

      • Brandon | October 25, 2022 at 11:08 am

        As a business owner, I would like to know what you would do to “fix” it. This is an honest question and I look forward to your reply. Who really cares what management’s approach would be as it sounds like you have a decent culture where most people are being honest. I think the best solution comes from the front line. What would you and your fellow employees see as the right approach to this problem? Please be as detailed as possible and think through all of the possible outcomes and address those as well. What should be the consequence, how do you measure whether or not an absence is an abuse, and what is the threshold?

        Thank you in advance

    • Dwight | June 2, 2020 at 4:47 am

      How to deal with employees rotation sick days? This day one takes a sick day the next day another takes a sick day so your always short staffed.

    • Kris Taylor | March 15, 2020 at 6:22 pm

      I found out how to deal with this problem – after trying almost EVERYTHING. I have quite a few construction employees who, in order to avoid no-shows (because that will get them in trouble) call in sick on an almost weekly basis.

      One gets the flu every week for a few days but is fine before and after. One vomits blood once a week. Another got flu, vomiting, and all of the above on a regular basis. Another one had dental problems that lasted a week (he did a short term job for the competition, I know it because he left his gear there and I never sent him to that site).

      The solution I found is this:

      Require doctor’s notes or prescription copies and do not allow them to work until they provide it, telling them if they do not provide it in short order then I will give them a week off of unpaid leave. If they start complying with doctors notes or prescriptions for advil, or are very tardy in getting the proof they were at the doctor, which they inevitably will, I do this:

      Type out a letter to their doctor on company letterhead.

      Very diplomatically explain your concerns with their repeated sicknesses and are concerned for their health.

      Explain all the littany of excuses that they have given you. If you have first aid training, come up with some possible serious causes or get someone who does know how. Preferrably stuff that requires blood tests. Sick too often? You are concerned they may have undiagnosed HIV. Vomiting all the time? Perhaps they have hepatitis. All of the above, suggest all of the above. The key is to get the doctor to send them to the lab to get blood work. Nobody likes needles.

      At the end of the letter express your concern and that your employee eagerly wants to return to work, but you are concerned for his/her safety on the job and that in order for them to return to work you need a clean bill of health given these repeated illnesses.

      Do not allow them to return to work until the doctor has read the letter and taken whatever action they deem necessary.

      When the doctor sees the letter, they will probably prescribe a bunch of bloodwork, and eventually the employee will tell the doctor that they were just lying to get out of work.

      The doctor will give them a little lecture and give them a clean bill of health and say do not do this again or next time they will be going for a full battery of tests.

      Guess what? They will return with this letter either stamped or be off duty getting blood work and turn out to be actually fine. They won’t call in sick anymore.

      If the problem isn’t that frequent, you can simply say, “Perhaps you should take a week of unpaid leave, we are concerned for your health” When they protest, you can say, “but your stomach, it keeps bothering you, maybe you should take a week off of unpaid leave” (we do not offer PTO or medical leave given the nature of construction.

      The problem goes away when word gets around that you will call them on their BS because they had to go for a bunch of blood tests just because they were hungover too many times.

      Works for me!

      • Velma V | August 31, 2021 at 8:25 am

        I have worked for my employer for two years and I have taken two days off in that time. I was in the hospital for one of those days hooked up to machines.

        If my employer handed me a doctor’s note form, they would get it back with my letter of resignation printed on it.

        I’m sure you think “good riddance”. Everyone is expendable.

        If your employees are really that terrible, why don’t you fire them and hire someone else?

    • Daniel | August 12, 2019 at 7:37 pm

      I have two concerns with combining vacation time and sick time.

      First, I’ve heard (and although I can’t find any studies/statistics, it makes enough sense to at least consider that it could be true) that employees become less likely to take sick days when they are ill because it eats into their vacation time. As a medical office, we *do not want* our employees in when they are sick.

      Second, about half of all states (and many more by company policy) consider vacation time earned wages, therefore, “use it or lose it” policies are illegal or they violate company policy. In these states, when an employee quits, he is entitled to be paid for unused vacation time. In California, PTO has to be paid on termination, but sick time does not.

    • Stefany Early | August 1, 2019 at 11:16 am

      I had an employee call off “because it was a (federal) holiday (one our business didn’t close for) and the mail would not be delivered, so there wouldn’t be anything for her to do”. Wrong!! There were several other task that could have been completed but she was a habitual call-in. She sent this via text. I responded to her “with there is plenty of work to do, the accounting office always has something to catch up on. She responded “I didn’t get all your message”. We then told her she could not text call in any longer, she had to speak with me. She was let go because of attendance shortly after.

      I don’t think habitual call-ins realize the stress put upon the other employees that have to pick up the slack when they call in. My thoughts are they really don’t want to work, and most habitual call ins are lazy workers (my opinion), they just want the pay check.

      I have a much better employee because we let her go. One that does not call in unless he absolutely is sick or has the day scheduled. I am a much happier supervisor because of it.

    • Susan | June 5, 2019 at 11:01 am

      Our old policy used to be, depending on long you’ve been with the company, you could max out at 20 days of vacation and 10 days of sick leave each year. Policy was used them or lose them after your work anniversary. We had some abusers, calling in because they have a headache, didn’t sleep well, stomach issues, having vision problems, and the list goes on. Bereavement leave was also taken advantaged, which didn’t get charged to either vacation or sick leave. It was to be used to immediate family but was used for relatives. The reasoning, because, he was like a son, father or daughter to me. Usually when their boss was out for the day, they would call out. As a result, we changed our policy to 13 days of PTO for the FT workers and 10 days for PT workers. Since the policy change, the abuser now thinks twice before calling out. Drawback is, I’ve lost my 4 weeks of vacation being here for 30+ years. It was hard to use it all, but it was nice to know I had it.

    • Robert | June 4, 2019 at 11:10 pm

      I combined the sick days with vacation and sick days. I find it a healthier workplace because workers have no need to lie to get a day off and you don’t have the resentment of employees against each others for lying.

    • Briana | May 15, 2018 at 11:13 pm

      I run a dog Walking business . I had to recently spoke with a walker because she had missed 9 days of work already from being sick. I believe she is sick but each time it’s very difficult for me to find another Walker to cover her route and their route and it makes everyone involved burned out. I let her know as I result clients were upset and I would move her to another route, but she quit instead. Good riddance .

    • Charles | April 19, 2018 at 2:00 pm

      Keep track of what day of the week that each employees call in sick. When I started this, I realized one employee always called in on Tuesday, when, as it turned out, his girlfriend was off work. Of course, he was married.

      You may also find a chronic problem of calling in on Fridays or Mondays (to get a three day weekend).

    • Sharon | April 19, 2018 at 9:50 am

      We can empathize all we want, but the conversation is simple: there is a business to run, they are a critical part of providing service and success for the business. You would love to work with them, however, the excess absences do interfere with customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction. You as a business manager or owner, but make business decisions and if they cannot be present you need to find someone who will be. Period.

    • Diane | April 19, 2018 at 7:39 am

      Very big problem at our child-care center!

    • Guy | February 13, 2018 at 9:18 am

      We have this happen a-lot with the company, I work for very often. We always have to work short, and I feel burned out..

    • Evie Hurt | December 8, 2017 at 6:35 am

      I own a small house cleaning biz and I am having problems with one employee is seems to always be sick. I believe her but it makes running my biz a bit difficult due to working short.

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