Returning to Work After Medical Leave: Laws, Prep, & More
Sometimes, life happens. And, sometimes it happens to get in the way of work. Fortunately, many employers allow their staff to take a medical leave, letting an employee focus on their health without worrying about work. And, when they are able, they can usually return to the same job.
However, returning to work after a medical leave isn’t as easy as showing up on a Monday morning. There are steps you should take during your medical leave to make the transition back to work smooth.
Returning to Work After a Medical Leave
Understand your rights.
Your medical leave may fall under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, don’t assume that because you have a job, you have FMLA. Your employer is not required to offer FMLA to staff unless they employ 50 or more employees.
And, even if your employer is required to offer FMLA leave, that does not mean you are entitled to it. To be eligible for FMLA leave, you:
- Must have worked for your employer for the last 12 months and at least 1,250 hours
- Must work within 75 miles of a location where your company employs at least 50 or more people
- Cannot be a “key employee” (someone who is paid among the highest 10% of all employees or whose leave would substantially harm the company)
If you are eligible for FMLA leave, you do have certain rights when you return to work. The rights include getting your old job back, or one that’s similar in title, duties, and pay.
An employer can choose to offer medical leave even if they don’t have to legally provide it. However, don’t assume that a small company has a leave policy as a way to woo employees. Make sure you find out if that’s a benefit the company offers.
Keep the communication going.
Whether you had to leave suddenly or your leave was planned, it’s important to communicate with your supervisor or HR department while you’re on medical leave. It could be a weekly or every other week email that explains how your recovery is progressing (without giving too many details), and when you expect to return to work.
There is no legal requirement for you to stay in contact with your employer while you’re on medical leave. However, it’s a good way to maintain your professional relationship with the company. If nothing else, it shows you’re eager and willing to return to the job as soon as you are able.
If you choose not to maintain communication with your employer, that’s your right. However, keep in mind that your employer can contact you while you’re on medical leave. Even if you filed all your paperwork in advance, sometimes medical leaves don’t go according to plan, and your return to work time line may change.
That’s why it’s legal for your employer to contact you for status updates. You may come back to work sooner or later than anticipated, and your employer has a right to ask for these updates.
While there are no rules about how often an employer can contact you to ask about your status, they cannot pressure you to come back to work any sooner than the doctor says you can.
Plan your return before your return.
Once your return to work date is approaching, set up a meeting with your supervisor. Find out what you missed and learn about any major changes that may have happened while you were gone. Get up to speed on projects you will take over and work with your boss to set up a plan for handing off the work to you.
While you’re at it, set up a meeting with your HR department. You likely need to fill out paperwork, and that may be something you can do before you come back to work, leaving you one less thing to do your first day back.
Also, use these meetings to communicate the kinds of accommodations you may need. It might be something as simple as more frequent breaks to take medications. Or, it could be something more involved like needing a new chair or closer parking spot. Whatever it is, make sure you give your employer ample time to accommodate you.
Get a Fitness-for-Duty certification.
Find out if you need a Fitness-for-Duty certification. Under FMLA, an employer can require you to obtain this certificate from your doctor before you return to work. This certificate gives you medical clearance to return to your previous job duties.
Legally, your employer should give you advance notice that this certification is required. However, to make sure nothing is forgotten, ask if your employer requires the certificate long before your leave is over. This gives you plenty of time to ask your doctor for it without anyone having to scramble to fill it out at the last minute.
Ask for flexible or reduced hours.
Even with medical clearance to return to work, jumping back in headfirst may not be the best thing for you. You may find that the daily grind is too much for you to handle right away.
Consider asking for flexible scheduling or work-from-home options as you are returning to work. This does not have to be a permanent change. It may be something you do for a short period while you return to work.
While it may seem intimidating to ask your employer for more accommodations, you can explain that it’s only for a short time and offer an end date or a check-in meeting after a month to see how it’s going.
Thank your coworkers.
Once you return to work from medical leave, thank coworkers who picked up the slack for you. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. A simple card or small box of candies may do the trick to say “thanks for covering for me.” But it’s worth acknowledging that this wasn’t easy for anybody.
Prepare for questions.
No matter what happened or how long you were gone, people are going to ask questions. Hopefully, they come from well-meaning and concerned coworkers who genuinely care about you and your health. Even if that’s not the case, having a few answers ready to go will make answering the questions easier.
But, if you can’t come up with an answer you’re comfortable sharing, simply thank your coworkers for their concern and let them know you just can’t talk about it. You never have to share your health details with your coworkers if you’re uncomfortable doing so.
Believe in yourself.
Once the initial shine of being back at work has worn off, you may find yourself doubting that you can handle everything. You’re worried that you came back too soon, or that you will get sick again, or let everybody down again, or a million other things.
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed after coming back from a medical leave. You’re probably still recovering (even if you feel just fine) and you’re adjusting to your new circumstances.
Give yourself time to adjust to your new reality. You’re bound to feel physically exhausted at times and mentally beat up, too. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Maybe you need to work from home more. Or, you need to shift some of your duties for a while. Let your boss or HR department know what’s going on and see what solutions they can offer.
When a Medical Leave Isn’t Enough Time
Sometimes, 12 weeks of leave isn’t enough. If that’s the case, you may have additional rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Depending on your situation, you may have the right to additional time off or other accommodations.
However, if, for whatever reason, you can’t get additional time off or accommodations, consider looking for a remote job. Many people who have disabilities are unable to work in an office environment. With remote jobs in many fields, people who need accommodations can continue working part-time or full-time for years longer than if they had stayed in an office.
Finding Work to Accommodate Your Life
An absence from work for any medical reason is an interruption in your life. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to mean quitting your job and abandoning your career. There are plenty of companies that offer flexible work options for people who need accommodations.
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