Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"
American healthcare and sick days in the US

When was the last time you were under the weather?

If you were sick did you take the day off or were you afraid to call in sick?

Americans don’t take sick days as often as they should, mostly because many companies don’t offer time for this.

We’re going to look at the idea of sick days, why they are important, and how this is an issue within the US.

*Please note, this episode was recorded before Corona Virus (COVID-19) began in the United States.

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We have a listener question that may help you!

Hello Lindsay, Michelle and Jessica,

My name is Vinícius, I’m from Recife, Pernambuco in Brazil. I have been listening to you everyday since 2018 when I discovered your podcast. I seek out fluency researching on the Internet and with the help of you.

I’d like to thank you for your podcasts that have been helping constantly in my learning of English. I’d also like to take the opportunity to ask about one doubt that I had when I watched a movie. I hear natives use the expression “under the weather” in English, and I’m confused by this.

Thank you for any help that you can provide!

A Little Background

When it comes to this phrase, like so many others in English, it can help to have a bit of background.

We did an episode on what to say when you feel like you’re getting sick, which is an important starting point.

Stuffed Up? Coming Down With Something? How To Talk About It In English

When you talk about being “under the weather” it basically means you are feeling a little sick.

It’s tough to NOT feel under the weather during this time of year, and you are probably like so many others if you have symptoms.

It’s flu season and this is when so many people get sick!

*Coronavirus has become a major concern, and that’s a whole other topic.

Colds are going around too, and so it’s very easy for you to become a germaphone during the winter months when everyone around you is sick.

When so many people are sick around you and you start to feel the symptoms setting in, this can be a concern.

If you feel unwell you want to know how to talk about this.

This becomes particularly important when it comes to talking about your illness at work.

Taking Time Off At Work To Get Better

There are so many different angles and topics to discuss when it comes to being sick.

Today we wanted to talk a little bit about being under the weather in the US.

Unfortunately, many people do NOT take days off if they are sick.

There is NO federal law saying an employer has to provide leave for sickness, and so this becomes a problem that you may have dealt with.

There are some places where paid sick leave is mandatory:

It may feel to you like some places almost encourage you to come to work when you’re sick.

There’s an article called “I Never Take a Sick Day: Americans Talk About Reporting to Work When Ill” by Lela Moore, January 15, 2019.

This speaks to how many Americans are almost afraid to ask for a day off.

There may be inadequate paid leave and therefore workers simply can’t afford to take a day off.

Some workers may go years without taking a sick day, which is an awful situation to think of.

You may want to look at the statistics as they really help to demonstrate the point here.

  • In 2016, 45% of Americans had no paid sick leave to use.
  • 90% of employees say they come to work sick

These were published statistics by Abigail Hess @ABIGAILJHESS on Sunday, November 3, 2019, Updated Monday, November 4, 2019. Go here to read more.

The question becomes how to fix this, and how to help workers feel confident and supported in taking a sick day.

You have to also think of the long term implications if employees come to work sick, or if they feel that they can’t take a day off to take care of themselves.

Looking At Laws and Other Policies

There are some companies out there that provide sick days or personal days, but not as many as you might think.

If you are lucky enough to work for a company that offers such days, then this is a wonderful benefit.

It’s very interesting to note that there is no actual law about sick days though.

There is the Family and Medical Leave Act.(FMLA) which ensures that larger companies give time off, though it is unpaid.

This works in the case of a bad illness, a close family member’s illness, having or adopting a child.

It’s all very complicated, and you may be like so many others that know firsthand that taking a sick day can be hard.

This may be changing a bit because more and more people can work from home now.

So in this way there is potential to stay home if you are sick.

However many kinds of jobs can’t be work from home, or the leaders of that company won’t allow it.

The idea is that there maybe should be more laws about protecting sick workers so they can confidently take sick days when needed.

This not only protects you as the worker but it also protects everyone around you as well.

There are some countries that have generous policies for offering their employees time off such as in Sweden, The Netherlands, Denmark, and France.

You can see more about this idea in the article “Why Americans don’t take sick days” by Brian Wheeler, BBC News Washington, September 14, 2016.

Knowing How To Talk About A Difficult Situation

We’ve covered topics about being sick quite a bit before, and they can all help you.

Take this episode for example– How To Ask To Leave Work Early In English

This is a perfect example of how to speak up for yourself at work.

If you are sick, you want to be able to tell your boss and take care of yourself.

The reality though is that basically people have to choose between getting paid and taking care of themselves in some situations.

A lot of people go to work when they’re sick because they feel like they have no other choice.

This is a problem and it goes along with a sometimes problematic work ethic.

This may not change, but it’s certainly something to think about–and if you’re sick you should stay home!

Here are some phrases from today to use in your conversations.

  • Sick Day: Taking a day off of work because you’re sick. Most companies allow you a certain amount of sick days per year. This usually means you are still paid even though you are out sick.
  • PTO: This means Paid Time Off, and it’s usually an important part of your employment terms. This may cover sick days or personal days if you have appointments or things like that.
  • FMLA: We talked about this, but it means Family Medical Leave Act. By law companies have to provide a certain leave of absence or amount of days that employees get off. This is often used for things like pregnancy or even caring for a sick relative.
  • Mental Health Day: This isn’t something that many companies necessarily offer. It may be something that you feel the need to take at some point in time. If you feel stressed or generally unwell, then it may be beneficial to take a day off like this to rest and get back to normal.

Knowing how to talk about this can be an important part of the process.

Though nobody wants to be sick, it’s a part of life.

You have to decide when you are too sick to go to work and when time at home would be more beneficial.


Sick days are hard to come by, and that creates a problem for so many workers.

Many companies offer them but it’s not a federal law, and so you have to figure out how to navigate your way through this.

Working from home makes things easier, but it may not fix the entire problem.

You need rest when you are sick to get better, and so you want to be mindful about that.

What is the policy where you come from?

Think of how to balance the few sick days you may get with staying home when you aren’t feeling well.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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