Calling in sick due to insomnia
April 17, 2016 3:39 PM   Subscribe

Is it unethical to call in sick due to insomnia? I have occasional insomnia as the side effect of medications I have to take. I work at a desk job so it is not like I'm operating machinery or dealing with patients lives but I find it hard to stay awake and perform when I've had a rough night. I get paid sick leave with no medical certificate required- is it wrong if I use it after a night of insomnia?
posted by EatMyHat to Work & Money (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Read your sick leave policy carefully, but I see zero issue with this whatsoever. Taking sick time means you are unable to work based on a health issue you're experiencing. Not sleeping is a health issue.
posted by Happydaz at 3:45 PM on April 17, 2016 [14 favorites]

Sick to me means unable to function in a work setting or contagious. I wouldn't specify the why when you call in sick to avoid judgment, but if you can't function don't go. Note that you may be hurting yourself later if you get the flu or other virus and have no available sick time left.
posted by cecic at 3:45 PM on April 17, 2016 [7 favorites]

Unethical? No. But your employer may not feel that insomnia is a 'proper excuse'.
In the same situation I've called in or emailed and said "I'm feeling unwell this morning, so I won't be coming in". Most employers, in my experience, don't ask for details of the symptoms.

Going to work after a night of zero sleep is as bad as going to work when you're ill with a bad cold or flu. You shouldn't feel bad about taking a day off.
posted by pipeski at 3:46 PM on April 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

My view of sick leave (after working in HR for a while) is that it's ethical in at least all of the following circumstances:
  1. You can't get to work safely because you're unwell
  2. You can't do your work properly because you're unwell
  3. You can't get home safely because you're unwell
  4. You will become unwell if you go to work and/or do your job
  5. A family member needs you to take care of them because any of the above applies (substituting school for work as applicable)

posted by SMPA at 3:49 PM on April 17, 2016 [25 favorites]

I've been known to call in sick after I've been up all night with the flu or a fever. I may be recovered from the primary symptoms by morning, but if I'm sleep-deprived and wretched from the night, then I'm still recovering from the illness, and I feel ethically fine with calling in sick on that basis.

Whether that's acceptable for your situation might depend on how occasional occasional is, how mission-critical it is to have butts in seats at your job or whether you'd just have to get the work done another day anyway, whether you could possibly mitigate it by taking half days instead of whole days, etc. If you have an HR department, this is the sort of thing you should be able to discuss with them, to see how your corporate bosses feel about the situation. Because some corporations and some bosses are bigger jerks about this stuff than others. If you take medication for a chronic illness, it may be that acceptances occasional absences is an accommodation they will make for your larger illness.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:51 PM on April 17, 2016

I work at a job with very generous paid sick leave with no doctor note required for short absences and in fact no explanation required other than "I'm not well enough to work today." We are trusted to use our judgment about it, as it sounds your workplace trusts you to use yours. However, I rarely take sick days, and neither do most of my colleagues.

There are two reasons, however, that most of us will take a sick day: if we are contagious and don't want to spread it, or if the health issue will prevent us from doing our job properly.

A situation like this falls in the latter category. If I were you, I wouldn't go to work if an occasional night of insomnia meant I'd do a poor job and I'd be better off resting at home.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:52 PM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have called in sick after a particularly bad night of insomnia (for me insomnia tends to run in cycles, so it's also cumulative across several days). I think it's fully legit to call in sick if sleep deprivation will make it impossible for you to perform your work responsibilities effectively. This, for me, doesn't mean merely being sleepy or uncomfortable, but that it would be unlikely I could stay awake at work for 8 hours.

The deal with things like insomnia, fatigue, etc. is that, as real as they are, they are not as obviously "sick" as having the flu or side effects from chemotherapy or what have you. This means that, while your employers might not have a problem with an employee calling in sick six times during the winter due to a cold because they saw you sneezing and coughing the day before, they might not be so cool with someone calling in six times due to insomnia. Personally, this is something I might be willing to claim perhaps twice a year. If you're thinking that you might be missing one or two days a month as a result of insomnia... that could be a tough one.
posted by slkinsey at 4:13 PM on April 17, 2016

I've done this very thing myself. I don't go nuts with it (I've done so maybe twice this year), but I've done it.

Granted, I have a generous leave package and I work in HR where they tend to not be dicks about time off in general, but I see no problem with it.

If you want to "soften the blow", though, another thing I've done is asked to come in late instead of not coming in at all. I'll claim a half-day sick time, sleep a couple extra hours and show up at noon. If your workplace will let you do half days like that, that may be something to consider as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:55 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

No, it's not unethical to take time off if you need it for a medical issue. Insomnia and circadian rhythm problems and different chronotypes are real things that can really make people really dysfunctional, as in, unable to function in a 8-4 or 9-5 world, occasionally or routinely. They're also things that attract a buttload of moralizing from dumb people. Dumb people in authority, or regular people in dumb systems, are dangerous when they're afforded the opportunity to make a call that affects your livelihood, if based on incorrect knowledge and inappropriate norms. If you suspect your livelihood is at risk for any of those reasons, lie and say you have the flu/are unwell (and at some point, get a note from a doc if you need one for the kind of system you're in - the note should not mention insomnia). IMO it's not unethical to lie if your livelihood depends on it, if you're caught up, by necessity, in dumb systems or under the thumb of dumb people. If it's more of a routine problem, i.e. your sleep issues are ongoing and it's a dumb system, make a plan to get out asap, and/or do your damnedest to address your medical problem however you can.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:55 PM on April 17, 2016 [19 favorites]

Particularly if it's a side effect of medication, I don't see an ethics issue. If it is more than once or twice a year, you might want to discuss it with your doctor and establish it with your employer as part of your condition. I suffer badly from insomnia myself, and I tend to struggle through it, but only because I have a better chance of sleeping well the next night if I make myself get out of bed and do things during the day. ymmv, obviously.
posted by frumiousb at 5:15 PM on April 17, 2016

I generally say as little as possible about why I'm taking a sick day, but yes I will take one when I am really trashed from lack of sleep (I had to take a half day recently because we had wild winds two nights in a row and I told my boss about it in part because we were both like "holy shit that wind amirite?"), but sometimes the sleep issue is the breaking point when I have a cold too and I don't make a big deal about differentiating. "Out today, death imminent." is generally as specific as I get. It's my time to use and not theirs to decide if I "deserve" it.)

Anyway, if you have a chronic issue you obviously have to do something, but if you have the occasional really shitty run and can't function (or shouldn't drive), you should take a sick day if it will help you recover.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:17 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Going against the grain but I would not recommend doing this. In my experience the stress from worrying "Should I call in now? How about if I don't fall asleep in an hour?" and eventually missing work would compound my insomnia. I work insane shifts and go to work on zero sleep pretty regularly and in my experience (yours may be different!!) it's not that bad and definitely preferable to calling out, for my own stress level. It sounds paradoxical but it's made it easier for me to sleep knowing that the worst that can happen is I will be exhausted.

It is definitely not unethical to call out due to insomnia, though, and if that extra day makes things better in the long run then go for it; in my own experience it has not.
posted by pintapicasso at 6:01 PM on April 17, 2016

It's totally ethical!

You get PTO for health issues. This is a health issue. Frankly, as long as you aren't using too many days, and you aren't taking days off because you want to watch the ballgame, I don't see any problem even if you just want a mental health day.

You need a day off for your well-being, you have it, and you should take it.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:20 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I want to vociferously advocate taking PTO for any damn reason you please.
It's your time, you earned it, take it whenever you wish, and be damned with "ethics".
If you have the time, and you need the time, take it.
posted by namewithoutwords at 6:26 PM on April 17, 2016 [13 favorites]

This is sick time for a job, not a thesis defense, jury trial, or Senate confirmation hearing. Take it if you need to and don't feel guilty about it. Period.
posted by mosk at 6:33 PM on April 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

At my last job, where I worked for a year, my own manager wrote in sick twice with insomnia. It was a fairly familiar workplace with lenient leave policies, but she clearly didn't feel like she had to hide it. If I were NOT a manager, I would just leave it at "I don't feel well," however.
posted by stoneandstar at 6:50 PM on April 17, 2016

I don't care how sick my employees are or in what way. If they say they're taking a sick day, that's fine.

That said: I'm going to notice if this insomnia seems to be correlated with something else. For instance, Mondays or Fridays, days of the big presentation, deadline days you aren't ready for... you know what I mean. If it's chronic insomnia such that your sick leave balance goes alarmingly close to zero with no solution in sight, and you're taking 8 hours as soon as you earn enough, I'm going to start suggesting maybe looking into FMLA. I'll probably sideline you away from projects where I need someone reliable, which sucks for both of us.

But once in a great while? Pft, don't even hesitate. That's a legit reason to call in, I've done it myself. I'd rather have that than someone dragging around the office, making silly mistakes, getting very little done, and making me feel exhausted just looking at them. (Plus, I do care about people not being miserable, it's not ALL about the rules.)
posted by ctmf at 7:08 PM on April 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

Sleep deprivation does awful things to one's driving, an important thing to take into consideration if you commute by car. I had a fortunately minor accident with a parked car when I left the house just on the border of 'have had enough sleep to drive safely' and 'have not had enough sleep to drive safely.'

I have a lot of sleep issues and that was a huge wake-up call, and now I have no problem at all cancelling things because I didn't get enough sleep to be safe on the roads. I wish more people were aware of this. I wish I had not left the house that day and am really grateful I got a metaphorical warning instead of something worse. People don't think twice if you say you can't drive because you've had a bit to drink but they still do sometimes look at you funny if you say you're too tired. Which is stupid.

Mythbusters: "drowsy drivers are responsible for one in six — or 17 percent - of fatal car accidents... Compared with cruising around while tipsy, sleep deprivation caused Tory to drive 10 times worse; sleepy Kari's driving was three times more erratic."
posted by kmennie at 7:09 PM on April 17, 2016 [15 favorites]

Not remotely unethical. And as a supervisor in a small office, I wouldn't have the slightest problem if the employee who reports to me did it.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 7:16 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, a tip: when you're out sick, keep a low social media profile. I have to admit getting irrationally irritated when someone who's "sick" is having a great ol' time on their day off, even though I know logically missing a day of work does not obligate anyone to be bedridden and shut-in for 24 straight hours.
posted by ctmf at 7:17 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you drive to work then yes you should absolutely take a sick day because of insomnia. Tired driving is almost as bad as drunk driving.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:11 PM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't get paid for sick days, and rarely take them because of it, but I have def taken a couple because of not sleeping. You just feel terrible, and I figure, anytime I can say I feel "terrible" (that's not related to my period, at least) I think I can justify a sick day.
posted by euphoria066 at 9:36 PM on April 17, 2016

Adding my voice to the chorus: Not unethical at all. I have terrible insomnia and I've had to take sick days after nights without sleep. If I'm not going to be able to function at my job, I shouldn't be there.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:00 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Apart from safety and contagion issues I judge whether I should be at work or not by this maxim: would I pay me for the quality of work I would do today. Anyone can be present, but they aren't paying you for that.
posted by Iteki at 11:05 PM on April 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've done it a couple of times, myself. The last one was last week, actually. I'd had some shots taken and the pain from them was so intense that I didn't sleep for a couple of days. Sometimes, I will take a half day and come in later if this happens, since my workplace is flexible enough.

I stopped feeling guilty about this a few years ago, when I realized that pushing myself when I was sleep-deprived made me more likely to get a cold. Now, I'd rather call out and catch up on my rest, instead of risking getting a head cold (or the flu, that happened once), and being out for two days to a week.
posted by PearlRose at 6:34 AM on April 18, 2016

I went in to work when I had terrible insomnia. Eventually, I was taken aside and told to just take sick days, as everybody noticed how terrible I looked and felt. My manager has no problem calling this a medical concern, and neither does my doctor.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 6:46 AM on April 18, 2016

As a manager, unless an employee has an absenteeism issue, I want them to use their sick time if, in their judgment as an adult and a professional, they need to. (And yes, I do make a note if someone is calling in like 3 Mondays or Fridays a month regularly, but this doesn't sound like what you're doing at all.)

If it's a stomach thing, headache, tail end of a cold or flu, insomnia, flight was delayed and only got 2 hours of sleep, mental health day, general feeling run-down-ness, etc., and it's only going to keep you out for a day, I really and truly do NOT want any details. It's not my call whether you're sick "enough" because I'm not a doctor and I'm not you (and hearing about someone's e.g., food poisoning, grosses me out.)

I don't think it makes a difference that this is due to medication because as you say, you have to take them, and it's occasional. It's not like you're hungover. If this is more than occasional, you might tell your doctor the side effects are affecting your work, though.

Work isn't everything, and I'd rather have someone performing at their best 4 days a week sometimes, than dragging and resenting being there often.
posted by kapers at 9:07 AM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I second the suggestion to apply for FMLA. if you're worried about what your employer may think of you being absent without "looking sick", this gives you the protection of having certification from your doctor that there is a medical reason for it. To get back to your original question, yes I think you should take the day. It's a legit medical reason.
posted by mrcrow at 11:00 AM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Definitely ethical, I would expect you're doing your employer a favour; if you've a job of any kind of complexity then doing nothing is preferable to going in and making errors that will only cause problems, and take up yours or others time to repair.

But as said, best to keep a low social media profile, while it seems obvious that "LOL, this cat looks like me" posts take rather less effort and incur less risk than your day job managers tend not to see it that way...
posted by DancingYear at 1:42 PM on April 18, 2016

Totally ethical, but nthing that "not feeling well" is advisable rather than specifying that it's insomnia.

When coworkers the next day say "aw, I heard you were sick/what happened/how you're feeling?" you can truthfully say something like "I think I was perhaps just really run down and needed the rest, I'm feeling better now."
posted by desuetude at 9:19 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

It depends on your manager and how understanding they are as to how much detail you should share. Me, I'm totally sympathetic. Been in your position etc.

If non-sympathetic "up all night with cough/stomach bug" will cover you.

I hope you get some rest and feel better soon
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 1:23 PM on April 19, 2016

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