Why Do Teachers Call In Sick?

Choice Media is reporting that teachers in Asbury Park, NJ averaged 18 sick days each in 2011-2012. Their data and report are a little ambiguous – it’s hard to tell whether those numbers also include personal days and they might be conflating “costs of substitutes for sick teachers” with “costs of substitutes overall” – but it’s a big number in any case. Eighteen days is 10% of a typical school year and is probably too many days for teachers to be missing even for all reasons combined.

The intended implication of the report is that teachers in Asbury Park are abusing their sick days, and that is probably true as well. And not just in Asbury Park. What teachers refer to – with tongue in cheek – as the “mental health day” is one of the worst kept secrets in district human resources. And as Choice Media points out there’s evidence that teachers are disproportionately likely to call in sick on Monday or Friday.

So while some teachers legitimately need the time off for illness, sick day abuse is probably real. I just don’t understand why.

I’m a teacher and I hate missing work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that missing work is more of a pain than being at work.

Missing school as a teacher involves roughly the same amount of work as being at school only with a lot more uncertainty because you’re not there to manage it all.

Substitutes still need lesson plans, seating charts, and materials. Students are still going to need to be held accountable for their work and behavior when you get back, both of which often tend to be messier with a substitute. It also disrupts class pacing in an already-tight curricular calendar.

Calling in sick doesn’t save me time or effort, and I spend a lot of the time I’m not at work thinking about what’s happening there or about what I’ll have to do when I get back.

As a result, in four years of teaching I’ve called in sick only twice.*

So I don’t get it. Who are these teachers who are calling in sick just to take a break? Do they have vastly more stressful workplace environments? Or are they just more indifferent than I am when it comes to planning for and dealing with substitutes?

*By my quick count I’ve needed a substitute teacher to cover my class on 13 days total: 2 sick days, 1 personal day, 1 field trip, 3 days of jury duty, and 6 days of mandatory PD or staff meetings.

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  1. Jake
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 6:43 PM | Permalink

    I think it is because teaching is so much more demanding of your attention than other jobs. If you sit in front of a computer all day and your kid is sick, you can often “work” from home, or if you have an appointment, you can move things in your schedule around it it. Teacher’s tend to have very little flexibility, so its either all of nothing. Either that, or they are just lazy and indifferent, and we should pay them less..

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 10:59 PM | Permalink

      I get that there are legitimate reasons to use sick time. It’s the “mental health day” phenomenon I don’t understand.

  2. Posted May 24, 2013 at 7:20 PM | Permalink

    I totally agree with you. Missing school is more work than being at school. I’m also with you that the majority of my absences have been for reasons other than sick days. My sick days have typically been when either I couldn’t talk or I couldn’t walk.

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 11:03 PM | Permalink

      Yeah, I think both times I called in sick my voice was non-functional, which for some reason sometimes happens to me after I get over a cold.

  3. Posted May 25, 2013 at 3:50 PM | Permalink

    Do they have vastly more stressful workplace environments? Yes.

    In some environments, the emotional and energetic toll on showing up can be extremely demanding.

    I know many teachers who take days “off” to catch up on grading and planning as well.

    • Posted May 25, 2013 at 9:28 PM | Permalink

      I’m sure some teachers have more stressful work than I do. Some even vastly so. But how many, really? The evidence suggests that teachers on average work shorter-than-average work weeks, for example, so I’m skeptical workload can explain all – or even most – of what’s going on. And, again, if being at work is that stressful, it’s not clear to me how much *less* stressful skipping work is going to be. The things that stress me out about being a teacher are mostly not avoided by calling in sick.

      Taking days off to catch up makes a certain amount of sense, though.

      • Posted May 27, 2013 at 6:44 PM | Permalink

        I agree “workload” and “time working” do not explain all/most of what is going on.

        I think the culture of a school is what creates the stress leading some teachers to take “mental health days” to relax. It would be less stressful to *not be in that environment* for a day than it would be to deal with it for the sake of not planning sub work. Part of that is being indifferent toward expectations of work given by substitutes as well.

        Something else I want to mention is that some schools offer perfect attendance bonuses. One school I worked at was for $1,000, and my current school offers $2,000 and pro-rates it $500 every day you take off.

        Consistency makes a classroom run smoother. It’s a lot easier for me to stay motivated to be consistent with a perfect attendance bonus.

        • Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:11 PM | Permalink

          Attendance bonuses are an interesting idea – they’d certainly be nice for someone like me who’s in relatively good health and doesn’t have children or dependents to take care of. I wonder if people then resent the system when they do have to take the day off, though. “I can’t go into work because I got hit by a car and you’re going to charge me $500?!?” (etc.)

          • Ellen Hotchkiss
            Posted May 30, 2013 at 3:02 AM | Permalink

            I was able to make attendance bonuses BC before children and that just isnt possible now a days. But in this tight budget climate and days of furloughs, we have been told that they do not even allot enough for the sub budget to cover most normal sick days. End of this year they told us if at all possible to not be out but half days for doctor appointments (most doc offices try to work with teachers but a lot of times isnt possible). and Of course if it is a half day out, subs will not pick up the job and we end up covering on our planning periods for that teacher (saving the school system the sub pay of course). It can be frustrating.

      • Amy
        Posted November 8, 2015 at 3:32 PM | Permalink

        Work shorter than average work weeks? In what world is that true?

  4. rw
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 7:18 PM | Permalink

    It doesn’t look like you have given this much thought. You look young and healthy AND MALE. Those figures you cite average out things like maternity leave, cancer, etc. Also, you have to figure in that as people age, some will not be as healthy as when they were younger. What do you propose young, white, male? Throw the senior teachers or the ones who become ill under the buss?

    • Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:24 AM | Permalink

      I haven’t looked at the numbers recently so I don’t know whether they actually conflate maternity leave with sick leave. I also am not sure why you think I’m ignoring things like cancer, trying to “throw people under the bus”, or need to “propose” something. If you go back and reread the post, you will see that it is mostly about the “mental health day” phenomenon or calling in sick for relatively mild illness, and why I find that puzzling.

  5. Posted December 30, 2013 at 9:59 AM | Permalink

    Love this post – I’ve always felt this way, too. It’s way more work to take a sick day as a teacher (if you’re conscientious about it) than it is to just go in and do the job yourself.

    • Posted December 30, 2013 at 2:33 PM | Permalink

      That’s certainly my experience! And a lot of that conscientiousness goes unrewarded.

  6. Agreeing to Disagree
    Posted February 2, 2014 at 6:22 AM | Permalink

    I am a new teacher in Ontario, and while I definitely agree that having a supply teacher is the equivalent amount of planning before and after the supply, I have to disagree entirely with everything else.

    In my first years, I have taken every one of the 11 sick days allotted – never due to a “mental health” day, though I have heard of these – (only once or twice due to actual sickness. All other days have been to mark, plan, and write reports).

    “The evidence suggests that teachers on average work shorter-than-average work weeks,..” I want to work where you work!!

    I often say to people outside of the profession that my job really begins at 3:30 when the bell rings. Planning, marking, assessments, remediation, anchor charts, finding resources and materials, meetings, PD, more meetings, more marking, dealing with all kinds of parents… all of this takes serious time, and none of it can be done between 8:30 and 3:30. I take work home everyday, and everything else in my life is neglected.

    I see that you are a Science teacher, meaning you likely do rotary. I think another thing people really need to realize is that depending what kind of teacher you are, the workload is exceptionally different from educator to educator –

    As a rotary teacher (Science, Music, etc.) you have to write, what, 2 or 3 lesson plans per week. At most, you would write 5. And this planning and marking would be the same for all the students in the school that rotate to you.

    As a kindergarten teacher, there is probably zero homework to mark. But on the other hand, your entire workday is physically demanding as your students have not developed the motor skills or independence to do everything a ten year old can, like cutting, getting ready, selecting snacks – you get the picture. So planning has to be immaculate as well.

    As an elementary teacher (like myself), many of us are juggling many hats during the school day. I, for example, teach math, language arts, french, social studies, dramatic arts, and visual arts. Just about everyday. That is easily 18 – 20 lesson plans per week. And that is just the delivery. When does the marking for these classes happen? The planning? What about behaviour and classroom management?

    I think I have made my point. Like I said, I have never taken a mental health day, though I have known many teachers who have – and I have NEVER once doubted that they’ve needed it.

  7. Amy
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 3:36 PM | Permalink

    I am also a new teacher and am on the fence about “mental health days”. I teach, what I see to be a very rough group of 8th graders, who really take their toll on me. After literally crying in my classroom at the end (and sometimes during lunch) every day the past week, I really see taking a mental health day as a positive. I found that when I get this frustrated or depressed about my job, I can’t teach the way I want to and the lesson turns into a flop. Plus, my work day doesn’t end when the final bell rings at 3:15. My work never really ends. I bring my work home and am either grading or planning until I go to bed at 9. Every. Day. So by taking a mental health day, I am taking time to rebuild myself.

    I also see what you mean by saying it adds a new kind of stress. I sometimes sit and wonder what my kids are doing or how they are treating the sub. But I take that stress over the stress of the work place if I am desperate enough to think of taking a mental health day.

    My rule of thumb is, don’t abuse it. If you wake up tired and want some extra sleep, that’s no excuse. But If you’re really stressed to the point where you just can’t it any more, why not take a mental health day? Stress has been linked to illness so by taking one mental health day, you may save yourself two or three actual sick days (I got my first migraine in 5 years during my first year teaching and it knocked me out for 2 days). In essence, be responsible and use it only when you need it. It’s a mental health day, not a “eh just not feeling it” day. And when it crosses that line, is where people start abusing the system.

    • Posted April 23, 2014 at 6:25 PM | Permalink

      To be clear, I don’t “blame” teaches for using “mental health days”, I was just expressing that it’s not an impulse I happen to share.

  8. ScarletNumber
    Posted February 15, 2016 at 6:08 AM | Permalink

    I find it amazing that you could be this obtuse.

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