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is it OK to call out sick on a business trip if you’re just really tired? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I manage a small team of software developers based in the London office of a small-to-medium company with offices in multiple countries. The workplace norms in each of our offices are very different, with different levels of PTO and differing expectations in company culture.

I work very closely with a team over in the U.S., and a few weeks ago took a couple of my team members (Steve and Colin) over to our U.S. office for a week-long visit. This is part of a “cultural exchange” between offices — I went over there the first time just before the pandemic struck in 2020, they returned the visit earlier this year, and we’ve now done the reciprocal visit again.

As the manager of a team, I try to be fair about sickness — if someone says they’re too ill to work, that’s not something I can contradict. I’ll only dig deeper if I see a pattern (e.g., every Monday after their team plays soccer or something obvious like that). I’m also fairly relaxed about the idea of “too ill to come into the office, but okay to work from home” — since we all learned about properly about contagious illnesses, I’m quite likely to take that option myself, but I wouldn’t ask someone to do that unless it was a quick “send me your work so far, so someone else can finish it” for a time-critical project.

However, a scenario cropped up during this last trip to the U.S. that completely blindsided me. One of my team members (Steve) messaged me on the morning of day 4 saying he was “feeling ill after yesterday,” did not sleep well, and would not be coming to the office that day. My initial reaction was “poor chap, feel better, hope to see you back in the office tomorrow.” Talking to him the next day, though, it seems that all he was suffering from was tiredness and a few aches and pains — arguably symptomatic of a fever, but from his description, more like jet lag had caught up with him.

Given that the other team member traveling (Colin) and I had both been suffering the same jet lag all week — Colin had been very vocal about getting almost no sleep — hearing it described this way left me feeling a little puzzled.

I’ve done a lot of business travel over the years, and my expectations would be that someone would only call out sick during a company trip if they were really unable to work — I’m thinking vomiting and diarrhea or similar. Tiredness and aches and pains would just be par for the course, for me, and something you’d just suck up (and probably whinge about in the office a bit). Basically, unless obviously contagious or physically messy or similar, I’d expect someone to be at least making the effort to get to the office during a work trip.

I’d never really thought about it before, but essentially it seems I have different standards and expectations for “sickness when in your normal working location” versus “sickness when on a business trip.”

First, is having different levels of expectation like this reasonable? Second, how should I have played this to the team in the U.S. office? I didn’t really tell them much, just “Steve is too sick to work today,” and probably left them with the impression that he was a lot sicker than it turns out he actually was.

This was Steve’s first ever business trip, so my temptation is to sit him down at some point soon and explain the “different standards” thing, and say that in the future, I’d expect him to make more of an effort … but am I way off-base?

It’s good that you’re questioning this because it’s trickier than it seems on the surface.

First, yes, I do think there are different standards for calling out sick when you’re on a business trip. When you only have a limited time in a location you’ve traveled to for business, you should make a real effort to show up for work on all of the days you’re expected to. That doesn’t mean you can’t take a sick day if you need one — obviously illness or injury can happen at any time, and if you’re too sick to come in (or contagious), you shouldn’t. But if it’s more “I’m tired/jet lagged/just feel meh” … yeah, you’d generally suck that up and go in because you’re only there for a limited time, your company has paid to send you there for a reason, etc.

However, we don’t actually know what was up with Steve. It’s definitely possible that your interpretation is correct — he was just jet lagged — but it’s also possible that he was sicker than you realized. Also, some health conditions are aggravated by exhaustion or jet lag, and it’s possible that’s the case with him.

You can’t really know which of these it was without asking … and the act of asking is more prying than a manager should really be doing. You’re better off taking him at his word: he was too sick to come in that day. Which also means (a) don’t sit him down after the fact and tell him he should have made more of an effort and (b) your explanation to the U.S. team (“Steve is too sick to work today”) was fine.

However! What you can do is set expectations for business trips ahead of time in the future — especially with junior-level staff or people who haven’t traveled for work before (as was the case with Steve). Ahead of the trip, you can go over expectations about things like how expenses will work, any differences in cultural expectations between the offices, etc., and include how to handle sick leave … which you could frame as “although you might be tired from the time difference, we ask that you make every effort to work all five days unless you’re genuinely too sick to work — which of course does happen.”


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