Faking Sick For Work: A Field Study

(A deeply, defiantly unscientific field study.)

The most impressive story I heard while asking people about their tactics for faking sick came from a man I’ll call Cameron (not his real name, for soon-to-be-obvious reasons). Though neither the most ardent taker of fake sick days nor the most paranoid about getting caught, he has nevertheless spent at least six years allowing and sometimes encouraging his officemates to believe that he has a consistent and touchy case of irritable bowel syndrome. He’s done Internet research and memorized symptoms and triggers. He’s commiserated with stories about co-workers' relatives and friends who are similarly afflicted. He’s gotten off work entirely simply by alluding to its effects. What he’s never actually done, however, is suffered even a single case.

I spoke to over a dozen people about their sick-faking schemes, reasoning, and fears, and while Cameron is undoubtedly the most shameless, he’s far from alone. Faking sick, I've come to determine, is to office workers what masturbation is to high schoolers: a largely undiscussed, slightly guilt-inducing practice that is nevertheless nearly universal and has been greatly assisted by the Internet.

(One caveat: almost all of the people I talked to worked for places where short absences did not require doctor's notes. This is good policy even when it's mildly abused; it's probably worth noting that almost all expressed some level of satisfaction about that fact.)

Now, whether because my circles limited me to a surplus of career-oriented, fastidiously honest do-gooders, or because said subjects hold their lies very close to the chest, few people copped to playing full-on hooky, like using a sick day as a means to take a sunny day down at the beach, or secreting away for an unofficial long weekend. (One woman actually claimed she didn't think it was fair to seriously enjoy herself if she was skipping work, so there is honour, or at least a skewed Protestant work ethic, among thieves.) For the most part, though, it was actually doing nothing that was the appeal: the glorious absence of responsibility that sickness provides, with none of the pain or snot.

The first problem most people have, then, is when, precisely, to try to pull this off—though often, it’s more a question of when not to. While few had hard and fast rules in place, one person was convinced that at least a month between sick days, real or otherwise, was all you needed to get away with it, since that was as far back as anyone could remember any single work day anyway. The preferred weekday was Tuesday, which was generally presumed to arouse the least suspicion. And, tempting as it might be, several people cautioned against calling in sick when you were hungover, largely out of fear that if you've had that much to drink, you may also not remember what evidence you might have left on social media the night before. But what digital culture taketh away, it also giveth: email has been a huge boon to the sick-faker, eliminating the need to be a decent actor. Not that you can keep a good performer down: several people admitted to specifically introducing typos into emails to appear more out of it.

It’s attention to detail that drives the closest thing to what you could call competing philosophies in faux-sickness, and it’s all related to what lie people actually use when the time comes. On this point, there are two schools: the purposefully vague and the meticulously detailed, and each has compelling arguments for its cause.

The guiding principle for those who prefer to keep things vague is basically that the ideal lie is not an airtight narrative, but the one that never arouses suspicion in the first place. They tend to choose a variation on “I’m feeling terrible,” and leave it at that. Most say that, so long as the illness is short, there’s never any real follow-up, though they’ll usually have an equally vague back-up just in case they’re put on the spot.

Hiding in a fog would probably ruin half the fun for those who spun elaborate yarns—the fakers for whom playing hooky seems to almost become a competitive sport. Nevertheless, the key here, it seems, is to stick with something that's reasonably serious and potentially chronic, but that doesn't linger. However, where a simple headache will do for the vague faker, the detailed one tends to prefer something like the migraine. One person, who claims to genuinely suffer from them, says they’re a great fake go-to because their presence is as well-known as their particulars are vaguely grasped; it’s serious, but provokes little follow-up. It’s the lack of further questioning that motivates people who bring up stomach issues—including Cameron, though no one else was that detailed—noting that few people want to know more when you raise even the spectre of vomiting, diarrhea, or indigestion.

As far as the people we're trying to trick are concerned, though, a lot of this subterfuge is mostly beside the point. Of the two managers I spoke with, the more cynical one admitted that he just assumed most single-day sick days were at best overstated, but only really cared if they happened too frequently (though he did scoff at the monthly suggestion, saying that seasonally was probably safer). The more positive manager confessed that he’d prefer more openness about the whole process, and figured “sick of work” was as bad as actually being sick, morale-and-productivity-wise. Both implied that HR was the truly stringent body in that regard, though, and Mr. Positive even suggested that having to deal with them and their bureaucratically baroque passive-aggression was probably punishment enough for anyone who abused the system.

This tracks pretty well with the experiences of us lying liars, few of whom had ever received any serious consequences for skipping work (although as many attributed that to their own fastidiousness as to probable managerial apathy). There were a couple chats with bosses, though those had more of that cool-parent air of, “If you’re going to do this, at least don’t be so dumb about it.” A few more had received HR “reminders” on policy after faux-sick days or in performance reviews they interpreted as warning shots (and had that effect on them). Only one person had had his attendance record cited in a termination, although it was when he was much younger and almost certainly wasn’t the main cause, according to him. (Mr. Cynical Manager corroborated that point, suggesting that overall attendance was more of a contributing factor to general employee evaluation, although he had a secondhand story of someone who was seriously disciplined after posting cottage pics on Facebook on the day of a supposed illness. Stupidity tax, that sounds like.)

All of which is to suggest that, overall, we could probably benefit from a considerable degree more honesty on the subject—which, with things like flex/personal days, open vacation plans, and diminished managerial demand for sick notes, we seem to be slowly moving towards. If nothing else, it probably indicates that you don’t need to convince everyone you have a spastic colon just to treat yourself to the occasional midweek Netflix marathon. More power to Cameron, though.