What to Do When You're Out of Sick Days

You wake up for work, only to realize that the stuffy nose and sore throat you had last night have gotten worse. Or alternatively, you wake up feeling fine, but your child comes in to tell you that they aren't feeling well.

You head to the phone to call in sick. But before calling your supervisor, you realize you've exhausted your supply of sick days. What should you do?

Given the variety of workplace situations, what you can do may vary. But your best option, whether you're sick or you're child is, is to fill out a form for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

"A lot of my families who have regular employment will have an FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] form in place on the chart," said Dr. Diane E. Pappas, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia.

"This may be one way for the parents to have their job protected, and we do this a lot," she said. "It's a fairly broad act."

The act covers people who work for the government, educators and people in companies with more than 50 employees. Enacted in 1993, it allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks off during a 12-month period to care for themselves or an ill child if they are taking care of them. However, that time off is unpaid.

"There is job protection that's afforded to the employee," said Ken Cope, an absence management practice leader at Hewitt LCG, a disability and absence management firm.

In the last 24 months, Cope noted, some states have enacted legislation to help employees when they need to miss work for illness or other personal reasons, which can include domestic violence or taking care of an injured family member who served in the military. The act recently expanded to include that situation.

"A lot of legislation is taking place at the state level to address this same issue," he said.

Cope notes that employees who are out for a certain period (typically more than seven days) can start using short-term disability leave, but that would not apply for an absence of a few days.

But while needing to take a day off may not cost you your job, doctors are quick to emphasize that prevention is the most important step, and those can be taken now.

While you may be able to tough out a cold in the office, that isn't likely to happen with the flu.

"If you had influenza, you wouldn't feel good enough to go to work," said Dr. Eric Larson, executive director of group health at the Center for Health Studies in Seattle.

For that reason, although it is not 100 percent effective, doctors say the most important step to take is getting a flu shot as soon as possible -- before flu season gets under way.

"This year, there should be a record amount of flu vaccine available," said Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, a general internist in Atlanta and past president of the American College of Physicians who currently serves on its Adult Immunization Advisory Board.

Fryhofer received her first flu vaccine shipment in August.

But even once you have the flu, there are steps you can take.

"People who have true flu, if they call their doctor within the onset of the symptoms, they can actually get an antiviral medication," Larson said.

That medication can lessen the severity of the symptoms and the length of the illness.

But communication with your doctor -- or your child's doctor -- should help you make the determination of what you need to do.

"A febrile [feverish] child can't go back to day care or a baby-sitting situation," Pappas said.

Those children usually have to be home for 24 hours, and while parents may be able to find a private baby sitter or work for a place that has care for sick children, those places are few and far between, Pappas said.

"A lot of families don't have extended family nearby," she said.

In that case, the Family and Medical Leave Act may be your only option.

Pappas notes that she has written many notes for parents when they need to stay home to take care of their child.

If the illness is your own and you decide to make the trek into the office, there are a few ways to keep your illness from spreading to your co-workers.

Fryhofer recommends keeping an alcohol-based hand gel with you to eliminate germs, as well as using a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

"Don't shake hands," she added. "If you shake hands with someone, you're going to spread that."

Fryhofer also recommends using phone and e-mail as much as possible, to avoid physical contact with co-workers.

And there is the obvious.

"The most important thing to prevent spreading is, wash your hands. Everyone else in the workplace should wash their hands too," Larson said.

Of course, what happens with your absences is ultimately dependent on your company. But having a sick employee come in isn't ideal for the company either.

"If you're sick, your employer should really not want you at the work place," Fryhofer said.

And some companies are beginning to become aware of that.

Some employers are promoting a virtual work force, using videoconferencing or other technologies to allow employees to work from home when they're sick, according to Cope.

"Employees are encouraged, if they have the ability to work at home, to actually do that," he said. "I think it does make good business sense, if the employee can be accommodated in that fashion."

Ultimately, said Cope, the key is to be in touch with your supervisor or manager of human relations.

"The very first thing I would say is to keep the lines of communication open ... to see what options are available," he said.


Cold & Flu season is here! Visit the ABCNews.com OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center to get all your questions answered about these nasty viruses.