When Calling in Sick is the Only Way to Take a Vacation

If your vacation requests never get approved, you'll end up finding another way out.

Suzanne Lucas

I work for a hospital that gives generous PTO (paid time off) benefits--they can be used for sick days, vacation days or personal days. Since I am rarely sick, I have several weeks saved up. However, I work in a department where coverage is an issue. Even though there are 30 of us, only 2 can be out at the same time. Additionally, requests for vacation are frequently denied and there are strict rules about who can take off when--and you can’t ask more than 60 days in advance, which means you may or may not get to attend your brother’s wedding.

As a result, people who call in “sick” (regardless of how sick they really are), get to use all their PTO. Those of us who try to schedule time off can rarely have it. Any way around this?

In the first place, I am not a fan of PTO plans. I prefer separate buckets for vacation, sick and personal days. (Although, honestly, what is the difference between vacation and personal? I’ve never quite understood the need to separate those things out.)

I’m also a huge fan of using vacation days—and having others use vacation days. You want employees that are happy. Employees who take vacation are happy. Happy employees are better workers. Honestly, they are.

This doesn’t seem like a direct problem of having a PTO plan, however, but of bad management choices.

This is how I would address this problem with my management: Get a new job.

Ha! Sorry. Easier said than done. No one messes with my vacation time. No one. I would actually start looking for a new job. But, until we reach that point, let’s figure out what is going on and make a plan.

What you have here is a vicious cycle.

  • Because you can’t get approved for vacation in advance, people call in sick in order to do things they would normally have scheduled vacation for
  • The number of people in the office then becomes unpredictable
  • Because the number of people in the office is unpredictable, management is hesitant to allow people to schedule vacation
  • Therefore, people resort to calling in sick
  • Repeat ad nauseum

While pointing this out to your managers may result in extremely defensive behavior, they might have not recognized the problem. You can end this cycle by doing away with PTO and putting things in different buckets, but I doubt that is something that can be done at the department level. You’ll need to convince your management of the need for a solution.

The key to breaking a vicious cycle is to stop focusing on the worst case scenario, which is, “if we allow people to take time off and people call in sick, the whole department will be gone at the same time!”

Take a step back and breathe and realize that scheduled time off is easier to manage than surprise time off. Replace the vicious cycle with a functioning cycle:

  • If people are allowed to schedule vacation in advance, people will schedule days off that they would have previously called in sick for
  • You will know the schedule in advance and can plan around that
  • The number of people in the office becomes predictable
  • Therefore, people will schedule in advance more often
  • Rules about the number of people out will become more enforceable

Getting management to let go of their worst fear will be the most difficult part. It can be scary breaking a vicious cycle, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of h uman r esources experience, most of which has been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady .


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