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Taking medical leave? What to know before you do

June 10, 2022 - 12 min read


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What is a medical leave of absence?

Which events qualify for a medical leave of absence?

Who is eligible for a medical leave of absence?

Short-term disability vs. long-term disability

Can employees take a medical leave of absence for their mental health?

Sometimes, it’s not possible to leave everything at the door when you come to work. Employees dealing with chronic health issues, mental illness, or caregiving responsibilities will sometimes face unexpected complications that make coming to work or doing the work difficult. In some cases, they might benefit from taking a medical leave of absence.

The reality is, any employee can have unexpected obstacles arise (that’s life). Even team members that previously were healthy and didn’t have caregiving responsibilities can find their lives turned upside down due to an accident, illness, or crisis with a family member.

It’s tough to manage your business around absences — after all, you depend on your team being present to fulfill their roles. But when an employee is overwhelmed with health and personal concerns, they’re not truly present (even when they show up to work). 

This culture of presenteeism actually costs employers more than absenteeism. Harvard Business Review clocks on-the-job productivity loss as anywhere from 20-60%. That adds up to over $150 billion — per year — in lost revenue across the United States.

If they feel like they can’t successfully balance work and personal life, they might even quit. In fact, health reasons are consistently one of the top factors why people voluntarily leave a job.

A robust medical leave policy that employees know about, and are encouraged to use responsibly, can avoid many of the problems of presenteeism. At the same time, consider whether you have a work culture that leads people to push themselves until they do need medical leave.

As a company or on your team, you may need to talk explicitly about how and why to call in sick, even when you work from home. Remote work has made it less obvious. 

Providing your employees with medical leave can help you retain your top talent and support your staff during tough times. Keep reading to learn more about medical leaves of absence, how to identify eligible employees, and which medical conditions qualify.

What is a medical leave of absence?

Employers may offer several different kinds of benefits for sick employees. These might include paid sick days, mental health days, or disability leave. However, a medical leave of absence is distinct from these other types of leave.

Generally speaking, an employee can opt to take medical leave alongside or after using up all of their available paid leave. Once the employee has notified their employer of their intent to take leave for a qualified reason, the employer can’t deny the absence.

Which events qualify for a medical leave of absence?

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) determines who is eligible for medical leave, which conditions are covered, and the employer’s responsibility to their employees. The following events are specifically covered by federal law:

  • Caring for a new child after adoption, birth, or foster care placement
  • Recovering from a serious medical condition
  • Taking care of a family member with a medical condition or disability
  • Providing care for a military service member who was injured
  • Qualifying exigencies related to military service

A qualifying exigency is a need to take leave that relates to the military service of a family member. This might include having to care for that service member’s children or parents. It may also include attending military events, handling financial concerns, or attending therapy. You can read more about exigency leave on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.

FMLA leave might be offered in addition to paid parental leave. Your company’s parental leave policy will vary based on the state that you work in and your employer. You can get the most up-to-date information on your company’s leave policies by reaching out to human resources. These policies are often included in your employee handbook as well.


Employee rights under FMLA

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during 12-month period for any qualified reason. During this period of time, the employee’s health insurance continues uninterrupted.

Upon returning from leave, the employee has the right to reinstatement — that is, to return to their job (or a similar position). The compensation, including health benefits, must be the same as the position held prior to the employee’s leave.

Employees are also allowed to take intermittent leave under FMLA policy. The weeks of leave they take for any of these reasons don’t have to be consecutive.

There is often some overlap for employees who would be covered under both FMLA and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Employers cannot force an employee to take leave, especially if the employee is able to do their job with reasonable accommodation.

Forcing an employee to take unwanted leave due to a disability is a form of workplace discrimination.


Who is eligible for a medical leave of absence?

Any employee who works for a covered employer is allowed to take FMLA leave if they meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Have worked for their employer or company for at least 12 months
  • Have at least 1,250 hours of service in the 12 months before taking leave
  • Works at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles of the employee’s work location

At a minimum, all eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of job protection and unpaid leave. However, some employers might offer other types of leave, like paid time off (PTO), sick leave, vacation time, and personal leave. 

Many of these are explained in detail in the company policies and guidelines. Leave that’s not mandated under federal and state law might have additional eligibility requirements.


Short-term disability vs. long-term disability

If an employee has an accident or a medical condition that prevents them from performing their jobs, they may opt to take disability leave. There are two kinds of disability leave available: short-term and long-term. Many employers provide both kinds of leave as part of their employee benefits.

Short-term disability provides some or all of the employee’s income if they find themselves unable to work due to illness or injury. There’s usually a short waiting period — no more than two weeks. Short-term disability leaves are generally less than 12 months. In order to receive income, medical certification might be required.

Long-term disability covers an employee if they find themselves unable to return to work after the short-term leave. Usually, the illness or injury must last longer than 90 days and impair their ability to do any job. Depending on the medical reason for leave and the company’s policy, long-term disability may last over a year or even result in early retirement.

Can employees take a medical leave of absence for their mental health?

Unaddressed mental health conditions can create serious issues for the employee as well as the organization and the people around them. If an employee needs to take a medical leave of absence for psychological reasons, it is covered under federal law. The wording of the FMLA is intentionally broad. As long as the condition prevents you from doing your job, you have the right to take time off work. 

Employees don’t need to provide their job with their diagnoses in order to request mental health leave. However, you can ask for enough additional information to confirm that the request is covered under FMLA. Human resources can provide guidance on how to honor the request while maintaining your employee’s privacy.

If the employee in question is seeking FMLA for stress-related reasons, it might be helpful to give them some options to manage their stress. You might suggest letting them work from home part-time, modify their work schedule, or utilize an EAP (employee assistance program) for support.

Employees with mental health diagnoses are protected under the ADA. The ADA requires that employers provide the resources that employees need to do their jobs. On the other hand, FMLA allows employees to take time away from work when they need to focus on their (or their family’s) well-being.

Final thoughts

BetterUp tracks something called the employer net promoter score, or eNPS. It’s a measure of how employees feel about the companies they work for. During the pandemic, eNPS skyrocketed, then fell dramatically. Our data showed both the highest and lowest eNPS scores on record. 

The takeaway? You can’t dabble in employee well-being. When people felt genuinely supported and cared for, they felt good about going to work. When the interest in supporting employee mental health waned, so did goodwill. 

Providing employees with the opportunity to take a medical leave of absence — and encouraging it when needed — reminds them that you’re on their side. No one does their best work when they’re hurt, afraid, or feeling alone. Your benefits are the unspoken way your company reinforces its values. Ensuring every employee puts their well-being first is a powerful message.

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Published June 10, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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