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How to Take Sick Leave If You’re an ALT

In Japan, sick leave is not a statutory right but that doesn't mean you can't take it.

By 6 min read

My girlfriend believes strongly in the idea of “if you can walk, you can work,” which seems to be quoted to me regularly by other Japanese friends and colleagues as well.

She took this to extremes when her refusal to take a day off—despite clearly being ill—led to her eventual hospitalization for a few days with gastric flu.

Me? I’m definitely more of a “no job is worth risking your long-term health” kind of guy.

Unfortunately, as far as this concerns ALTs in Japan, taking time off—even for genuine health reasons—can often be problematic and can even jeopardize your employment if you don’t handle it correctly.

The legalities of sick leave for ALTs in Japan

In Japan, sick leave is not a statutory right, it is at your employer’s discretion whether they offer it to you or not.

As a direct hire ALT here in Nagano, I have 10 days of annual sickness leave written into my contract, in addition to 20 days of discretionary annual leave. Though, of course, there are protocols that need to be followed in using that leave, too.

This is in contrast to my contract as an ALT in Osaka City where the starting contract was 10 days of annual leave with no sick days. This is, in effect, only nine days when you consider that teachers are also expected to use their own annual leave to go and get their visa renewed; a process which typically involves two visits to immigration, each potentially lasting several hours.

However, this is still better than what some dispatch ALTs get.

In Japan, sick leave is not a statutory right, it is at your employer’s discretion whether they offer it to you or not.

Some dispatch companies will use an independent vendor contract or a part-time contract, rather than the full-time contract most direct hire ALTs are on. This means they don’t need to offer holiday entitlements or pension and insurance contributions.

This is just one of the pitfalls to watch out for in some English teacher contracts.

Your responsibilities as an ALT

So, the obligations on the part of your employer don’t really amount to much, but what obligations are there on us as employees?

In principle, an employer can refuse to allow you annual leave if taking leave at that time would be detrimental to the day-to-day performance of the company.

However, to suggest that a school cannot run without an ALT for a day or two is disingenuous. Classes can easily be rescheduled with a bit of give-and-take from both sides. It’s not too difficult to maintain good relations with your Board of Education so that they’ll extend some leeway if and when you need it.

Your rights as an ALT

Sick leave, however, cannot be denied nor can you legally be punished for using it, provided you obtain proof of your medical needs. This is covered under Article 19 of the Labour Standards Law. This can involve one of two things, depending on the needs of your employer.

They may ask you to provide a 診断書 (shindansho) or medical certificate. This is basically a note from your doctor outlining what is wrong with you, the treatment required and the likely amount of time off you will need to recover. The doctor will give you this if you ask for it, but you will probably need to pay ¥2,000 or so extra on top of your medical bill as an administration fee to get it.

However, from my experience, a shindansho isn’t always necessary. These days, most employers will happily accept a receipt from the hospital or clinic you attended as proof of your sickness. This is given to you as standard when you pay for your treatment and doesn’t carry any additional cost.

If you do decide to use sick leave, be sure to ask your manager whether they require a receipt or a shindansho when you do. Note that if your contract doesn’t have sick leave and you’re using your annual leave instead, no documentation is required.

The unspoken rules of taking sick leave

So, now that we’ve met the legal requirements, what about the social elements? In a society with a reputation for overwork, how can you take time off for medical care without being seen as lazy or work-shy?

If it’s a short-term illness

If your condition is less serious, i.e. you just have a heavy cold and need a day in bed to recover, then be sure to follow protocol for calling your school and informing them of the situation.

Typically, for an ALT, this involves calling the school you are scheduled to be attending that day. Then contact your base school and your manager at the Board of Education (BOE) or your dispatch company. You should prioritize calling your school for that day first, then your dispatch company if you work for them.

If you are a direct hire ALT then a call to your school for the day and probably an email to your manager at the BOE and your base school will suffice.

Each BOE has its own policy around this, though, both official and unofficial, so it’s best to ask your manager what the specific process for your city is when you start working there.

Also, again this is your call, but unless you go to a hospital or clinic, it is generally seen as bad form to use medical leave as opposed to annual leave for something that only incapacitates you for a day or two.

If it’s a medium or long-term illness

First, try to give as much notice of leave as possible.

I’ve been undergoing a series of surgeries over the last few months and I may still have more to come in the weeks ahead. As a general rule, as soon as I finish my appointment at the hospital and I’m informed of my next one, I call my school and tell my vice-principal directly when my next medical leave will be. Although my absence creates problems for my school, they have been very understanding and appreciative of my efforts to minimize this interruption and give as much notice as possible.

As much as possible try to minimize the impact by keeping as many treatments and visits to weekends and evenings as possible. Keep your school updated regularly. Also, it’s customary to apologize when you take time off, even if it isn’t your fault. That’s just a social convention here in Japan.

Finally, if you are one of those ALTs like me who teaches at various different schools each week and you need multiple hospital visits, try to schedule your appointments so that you don’t consistently miss lessons at the same school. Again, it shows consideration for them and professionalism on your part.

Overall, while there are social differences to consider, getting sick in your home country probably isn’t that much different from here in Japan. Give plenty of notice, apologize a lot and be considerate of how your time off affects those around you.

Japan101: Teaching English

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