Whenever I have to stay home sick from work, I’m always uncertain about how much detail to give. Do I let my boss know that I have the stomach flu, specifically? Or would she prefer the simple elegance of “feeling under the weather?”
I mentioned this conundrum at a recent dinner with three friends, all of whom are managers. For the most part, they agreed they would not want to know the particulars of an employee’s reasons for missing work. They trust the people they manage and are troubled by the idea that workers would feel pressured to disclose the minutiae of their bodily ailments. The exception, they said, is when an employee has a chronic illness or condition, in which case it’s helpful to have a bit of context for regular absences.
That said, none of them objected to the idea of employees sharing that they had a cold or a monster migraine. There was just one excuse that they agreed employees should almost never use: Food poisoning.
Food poisoning, in their experience, is an excuse that is wildly overused, suggesting an ominous world in which the average diner must be under near-constant attack from armies of raw chicken and bombardments of unwashed lettuce leaves. It’s a perennial favorite on message boards where workers swap tips about what to tell their bosses to take advantage of sunny days or otherwise skip out on the office, and CNBC has even gone so far as to recommend it as an apropos summertime excuse: “There are a lot of festivals, picnics, work events, county fairs, state fairs and other events where people eat all kinds of crazy things, so your chances of getting food poisoning probably go up in the summer,” it noted in a piece from 2012.
Rates of food poisoning really do tend to go up in the summer months, according to the US Department of Agriculture—both because warm weather is a boon for bacteria and because people can get a little lax about proper cooking procedures during barbecue season.
And as anyone who’s experienced the real deal can attest, it’s a miserable thing to go through. Consider this tale of woe, courtesy of writer Nicole Cliffe, who detailed her husband’s encounter with a bad oyster:
And yet while food poisoning is hardly an unbelievable problem to have—the US Centers for Disease Control estimates that 48 million Americans come down with a foodborne illness each year—it has a certain reputation as the “dog ate my homework” of workplace excuses.
There are several reasons people tend to fall back on food poisoning as an explanation:
- Real food poisoning often requires that you spend much of your day lying on the bathroom floor by the toilet, which is exactly what you’d be doing if you were, say, wretchedly hungover.
- It comes upon you suddenly and without warning, so there’s no problem if you came to work appearing perfectly healthy the day before, only to get unexpectedly dumped that evening, requiring a mandatory day of crying in bed.
- It’s flexible. You can recover from food poisoning in a one-day period, should you just be ducking out for a quick day at the beach, but it’s also believable that it could stretch on for another 24 hours.
- And it’s gross enough that no one is going to ask a lot of follow-up questions.
They will, however, suspect you are lying.
- “Everyone says they feel bad for you, but they don’t buy it for a second,” Gawker declared back in 2010.
- “At this point, I read ‘food poisoning’ as a polite way to say, ‘I’d rather not say’ or ‘I’m playing hooky,'” a Quartz colleague of mine notes.
The deeper problem with the food-poisoning excuse
Beyond the fact that people will know food poisoning is a cover story, there’s a deeper problem with the ubiquity of the excuse: It’s indicative of the fact that many employees still feel as if they need to convince their bosses that they’re projectile-vomiting like the kid in The Exorcist in order to get the occasional day off.
As Chicago advertising executive Ian Sohn recently wrote on in a viral LinkedIn post, too many workplaces still infantilize their employees, demanding excuses and justifications that imply workers “have to apologize for having lives.”
The reality is that we’re all human beings who will occasionally need to miss work for reasons that go beyond physical illness—but when an office is stingy with vacation or personal days, it effectively puts people in the position of feeling they have to lie to their boss.
Thankfully, some workplaces are changing their policies to acknowledge the wide range of reasons why people might need to miss work, whether that means offering unlimited paid time off or encouraging workers to take mental health days. As for the offices that are still behind the times: If otherwise healthy workers seem to fall prey to contaminated food with shocking regularity, take note. So long as the employees typically are responsible, the problem doesn’t lie with them or with the food they eat, but with a culture that doesn’t trust them to manage their time and get their work done.