46

I have been on "sick leave" for a little more than a week due to mental health issues. I'm now back to work and my coworkers are asking "did you have the flu?" or other questions like that.

I know they are just trying to be nice by inquiring about my health, but I would rather not answer this question (since I don't want people to know that I was absent due to my mental health issues).

So, how could I politely (and not awkwardly) avoid answering such a question?

Note that I do not want to lie. I don't mind people making false assumptions based on incomplete (and misleading) information but I absolutely do not want to say that I had the flu when I didn’t.

So far, I have managed to not answer the question by just keeping quiet and letting someone else jump into the conversation. However, I'm afraid that, at some point, someone will ask and expect me to say something in return (like in a 1 on 1 conversation).


Note:

I have found this other relevant question but I don't think this is the same scenario because:

  • I do not want to lie

  • My coworkers aren't asking in order to "dig up info" but mainly because they care about me (at least, that's how I interpret things)

11 Answers 11

53

Most languages will have a saying akin to "I was feeling a bit under the weather" or something close to that. I would simply say that.

When I am sick and my co-workers ask me about it I usually say "I was feeling really sick". This is something people often say in my language (Dutch) when they either are feverish, sick to their stomach or just feel like crap.

If people push on beyond that for you to define the illness (which is rather rude to begin with) simply reply with. "You know, just sick." And change the subject or move away. This should give them the notion that you'd rather not talk about the specifics, whatever those may be.

I define being sick as not being well, and struggling with your mental health is also not being well. So I do not think you would be lying by saying this. You are simply omitting the specifics of what made you feel not well.

  • 11
    “I was feeling a bit under the weather” might not fit considering OP was off for a week. I don’t have a good alternative though. – Tim Nov 5 '19 at 18:34
  • 2
    @Tim I know, but that is why I reach for the example of what I would say in my language. I don't know how it is with other languages, but what we often say when we were or are sick is a variation of "I am feeling sick". Sick could mean anything here but most often it is thought to be the flu or a cold or something similar. But if you are sick for a week (say a very rough flu or stomach flu or something) we simply say "really sick" instead of sick. I think it works for English but I am not sure for French. – Robin Nov 6 '19 at 6:51
  • I agree with being direct, though I want to add that OP could say "I needed a few personal days" or similar in another language. In English this doesn't mean you were sick, but were not able to show up due to personal matters I believe. – Codingale Nov 7 '19 at 9:11
25

Some people have suggested strategies to do with being vague and evasive, but I'm going to suggest a different approach. Be honest that it is a private matter.

People are naturally inquisitive, and will want to know what was wrong. In my experience, being evasive can be a problem, especially when talking to colleagues that you are friends with. It can leave them disappointed, and thinking something along the lines of, "Why won't they tell me? I thought we were closer than that".

If you make it clear that it was something private that you're not comfortable discussing with anyone, it will set the expectation, and they will know not to waste any more time pushing for more details, just make sure that you frame it up politely. Perhaps you could say something along these lines:

I really am thankful that you're kind enough to ask, but it's a private matter and I'm uncomfortable discussing it with anyone.

You could even embellish a little bit for humorous effect if you wish

I was uncomfortable discussing it with the doctor, never mind anyone else!

In my experience, being vague doesn't help, as it only seems to encourage people to try to tease more information out of you, which can also cause all parties involved to feel frustrated. Being honest and direct about your need for privacy nips any probing questions in the bud.

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    +1. I'm in Germany, so culture is rather direct over here. I'd thus replace "I'm uncomfortable dicussing" with "I don't want to discuss" (comfortable or not, it's not their business). – cbeleites supports Monica Nov 5 '19 at 20:44
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    From their profile, OP is french. Knowing both german (lived years with a french/german woman) and french cultures, let me tell you they're quite different, to say the least :) not sure the direct approach would be good if this happens in french workplace... OP should clarify maybe? – OldPadawan Nov 5 '19 at 21:17
  • I agree. Simply stating that just saying so would be embarrassing, is exactly how I avoid this question. Interestingly, claiming something WOULD embarrass you, is not actually embarrassing. – Glurth Nov 7 '19 at 23:42
23

From what I've seen my coworkers do when they didn't want to talk about some personal thing (like the reason for sick leave) there are 2 main ways to handle any inquiry about it. Which one to choose depends on whether you want people to always take you seriously, or if you want to be known as a bit of a joker outside of serious work related topics.

1) Give ridiculous answers. Make it obvious you're not going to tell the truth.
2) Dodge, dodge, dodge, give something small and thank them for leaving it at that.

joke answer

I know you asked for solutions that did not involve lying, but that depends on what you see as "a lie". I agree that it feels wrong to say you have the flu when it was mental health issues. But what if you tell an obvious joke instead?

Take this conversation with my coworker for example:

So [coworker], how's the baby doing lately? (he has a 5 month old baby).
Oh man, she has measles, high fever, and the fifth disease*!
(me joking back:) Oh, well at least she's now had those so they shouldn't be coming back .. no wait that's only after they're 6 month old right?
Imus, if she really had all those she wouldn't have survived :p

Since he always jokes in an exaggerated way to personal things he doesn't want to talk about I knew it was pointless to ask for a serious answer. He would've just made up another highly exaggerated story again.

This works as a general approach if you want an easy way to avoid talking about your personal life with coworkers, but might only be a real option for extroverted people overall.

Dodge

Another coworker is the polar opposite of the joker above. He's the more typical introvert that will avoid talking with most people. If you ask him about his absence he'll probably give you just enough information to see that it's justified, yet not enough to be interesting otherwise.

If he has something like the flu, he'll just say that he has like most people. If it's something different like a surgery he'll only inform a couple of his closest coworkers but dodge most others.

For example: While we knew about what surgery he had on a certain day, his response to someone else asking why he wasn't at work was simply "Oh that was just a doctors appointment. What brings you here?"

Notice how he didn't really say anything at all. Sure a doctors appointment could be serious, but it could also just be a regular checkup. And since he finished with a question on something entirely else, the absence conversation is now over. There's no way for the other person to continue asking why he had to see the doctor without feeling awkward himself, whereas my introverted coworker could just as easily dodge that new question as well.

So more specifically for your situation now. Since you've been gone for a week you're somewhat expected to give at least some information about why you've been gone for so long. Since you don't want to mention mental health issues, your next best thing is to tell about certain symptoms that could be cause by either those mental health issues, or something much more common. You really had those symptoms so you're not lying, yet you'll still be dodging mentioning anything mental health related. After you've given your minimal information you then ask a question leading the conversation somewhere else (or use some other way to shut it down) which makes it really hard for them to come back to it. For example:

So did you have the flu or something?
Oh no it wasn't the flu but I felt really bad. I did barely had any energy left to get out of bed and had trouble keeping my food in. After consulting with my doctor I was told to stay home for a week and rest up. I'm feeling somewhat better now though, thanks for asking :) So how's xyz been going while I was gone?

Note that I meant "doctor" in the general sense, which includes psychiatrists as well.

Replace the symptoms with whatever you were feeling and are comfortable mentioning to your coworkers. Preferably using words that everyone understands from experience (like tiredness, stomach aches, nausea, ...).

If you expect your issues to still be clearly visible you can pre-empt that yourself as well. Just casually mention (after explaining symptoms) that you might still look pretty tired and grumpy for a while and that they don't need to worry about it. That way, the next time you're looking somewhat down, they might just think "oh right, they're still recovering" instead of asking you what's wrong.

You should always end with either a change of subject or completely shutting down the conversation. If you don't you might create an expectation that you should explain more about what you have. A couple of options that usually work after such a week of absence are asking what you've missed while you were gone. Ask for updates on a project you're supposed to work on. Ask about how they're doing. Or just say "... Thanks for asking, now if you'll excuse me I still got a LOT of mails to go through."


*: fifth disease: erythema infectiosum, caused by parvovirus B19.

20

It sounds like you need a way to change the subject.

Business Insider lists two techniques that I've personally found great success with:

Use a distraction

The article says to do something like pointing behind the other person and yelling "Squirrel!" which, to me seems a little overkill. I do think using a distraction outside the scope of the conversation is perfectly valid though. For example:

THEM: Did you have the flu?

YOU: No, but I did find some of the cutest cat pictures ever while I was stuck in bed. Do you want to see some of them??

Without giving too much away, you're turning the conversation from your illness over to cute cats. From there it'd be a small step to start talking about cute pets you've seen, or how Janet from accounting's dog has been.

This is something I've often done myself. I find it extremely useful to move the conversation to lighter and less controversial topics (especially in the workplace!). This is also useful for me when I realize someone is asking me more questions to try to be nice when they're not actually super interested in something (if they're asking about the technical aspects of my job, for instance).

Bring another person into the conversation

This one I especially like. You can't continue a conversation on a topic if you bring in someone new who doesn't even know about it!

This could look like:

THEM: Did you have the flu?

YOU: No, thank goodness, nothing like what Janet had. Janet! How many days were you out sick a few weeks ago for that flu? That thing was a beast!

And then from there you can steer the conversation to how Janet's children got sick from her and how they missed their soccer games because of it, etc, etc...


Lastly, if you don't actually want to continue the conversation, you can politely shut it down by thanking them:

THEM: Did you have the flu?

YOU: No, I haven't been feeling well. I'm doing better now though. Thank you for your concern.

Ending with a smile here and thanking them work to let them know that you appreciate their worry. This is really the reason they're asking in the first place--to show concern for your well being and let you know they care. A quick and easy way to end the conversation is to acknowledge that and let them know the message was received.

11

Over time I have personally found the following technique to be useful. It depends on your personality and how you deliver it, plus the audience, culture, location and other factors but it may help you.

Throw one hand up and shake your head and say 'ah boy you really dont wana know. Trust me! Smile sorta sadly at the end.

  • Uses humor
  • Avoids lying about yourself
  • Spares them the glory details!
  • Ends the tropics for most folks
  • Can be repeated. if pushed. If pushed again back away slowly :)

I have used it and I have seen others use similar variations and it always seems to be an effective way to end that topic of conversation. It clearly refers to an unpleasant experience (for example mild to severe 'digestive' issues that are often not talked about in public).

10

Full Disclosure: I work as a programmer for a NorthEastern United States State Government, so take this within the proper cultural context.

Don't Answer Personal Questions You Don't Want To Answer

"I'd rather not talk about it" is a full and complete answer to anything anyone asks that you don't want to respond to - and culturally, acceptable as an answer.

They may be showing concern for your well-being, but they should also show concern for your privacy. And not every person wants to talk about reasons for medical leave - there are very personal reasons people could take it, such as your own reason, and that's generally understood to be a private matter.

I've actually been told this before at work - that if I don't tell people why I was out of the office, they generally don't have to know.

9

I've found that when people ask questions like that, it's usually an unintentionally roundabout way of finding out one of two things: whether they should be concerned about your well-being, and whether this is something they should worry about catching.

I've always answered questions like this with something like:

Don't worry, it's nothing contagious, and I'm back to normal now.

You're not evading the question, and you're providing the information that the majority of people are after.


The only person that I can remember pushing for details after that point was a coworker who was also out for a period of time with a particular illness that was going around and who was looking for someone to commiserate with. A response like:

No, I'm glad it wasn't <illness X> though, I've heard that one's pretty bad this year.

can answer that particular follow-up without divulging any unnecessary details.

5

In similar situations, I usually prefer saying something like:

I prefer to avoid talking about this, because it is something which is embarassing me. However I'm healthy and happy now; thank you for worrying about me!

And I say that with a thankful smile.

This is the truth and they will not insist, as you already said you don't want to discuss that subject (and people usually understand that it is usually better if some health issues stay private).

5

Last year (while working in a French company), I had a very serious and sudden health condition that led me to the ER. I had to leave work in a hurry and my coworkers had questions when I came back. I didn't want to disclose said health condition to them (I had an internal haemorrhage and I was afraid their imagination went wild should I tell them about it), so when they asked me if I was okay after coming back from my sick leave, I said

J'ai eu des soucis de santé pour lesquels mon médecin a jugé bon de m'arrêter un moment

which roughly translates into

I had some health issues and my GP thought it'd be good for my recovery to be on sick leave for a few days.

I confirmed them I had health issues, which for the French workplace culture already implies that asking for further details would be inappropriate. Such phrasing also indicated that I was back because my GP thought I had fully recovered, so they didn't have to worry about my wellbeing (and therefore my performance at work, which is probably what most of them really cared about).

If they still ask for details after this, you might want to smile gently and say

J'apprécie que vous vous souciez de ma santé.

aka

I appreciate your concerns about my personal wellbeing.

It's a polite way to dodge the question and give your coworkers rather obvious hints that your health is not something you're willing to discuss at work. If they still don't get it you might want to be firm and tell them you don't want to talk about it, but I believe the two steps above mentioned (if not only the first) should be enough in all likelyhood.

4

If the asker has any sense of etiquette then providing the answer:

I was just dealing with a health issue but I'd rather not get into the details; I'm feeling much better now though.

This should give them a clue to change the subject.


I've had co-workers go absent for extended periods of time and naturally I will ask such things as "How are you feeling?" just to acknowledge that I'm glad to see them back.

Occasionally I will prod to see if they wish to open up about it and receive the response I mentioned above and it lets me know to change the subject so that we can amicably continue being co-workers.

3

I'm in Germany, so a fairly direct culture (i.e. "How are you?" is the invitation that if you'd like to you can now discuss the full details of your illness).

In order to stop people from bugging me about details I don't want to disclose, I'd go for something like the following steps of escalation:

  1. "Thank you [for asking/caring]. [no explanation following]" should usually be sufficient - that's the level that you'd have to expect to deal with.
    Also: "Thank you." without "... I'm well." as answer to "How are you?" indicates that not all is well, but it's not to be discussed.

    (Also, if the person is someone whom you would tell, but not in that situation, then a quick "not here/not now" or just "no" and/or shaking of the head would give warning that something is indeed wrong, but it is not to be discussed here/now. They'd probably come back with the question in a 1:1 situation, though.")

    "Did you have the flu?" answered with "no. [no further explanation]" or "no, thank you. [no further explanation]" should likewise indicate that this is not to be discussed any further.

  2. "Don't ask." is slightly stronger but still perfectly polite,
    but also slightly tricky as there is a very common joke with A asking "How are you" B: "Don't ask" - and B then complaining that noone asks/cares how they are doing. However, if you clearly indicate that your answer is meant literally and does not refer to the joke, it should have the desired effect.

  3. If that wasn't sufficient: "Wrong question."
    This is curt, borderline polite as is appropriate with an unpolite, insensitive questioner.

    This may be combined with turning around and going away.

  4. If it's still not stopping: "This is none of your business.", very clear, very much to the point and depending on how impolite/pushy the asker was so far also showing anger is appropriate by now.

  5. Last resort is asking colleagues for help "Can someone please teach B some manners? I do not want to discuss my illness."

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