So You’re Curious About Medical Leave

Kyla Bills

It’s no surprise that health is at the front of nearly everyone’s mind right now, and you may be curious about what your options are when it comes to taking more time off than just a few sick days. While many of us have a vague awareness that medical leave exists, you might not know exactly how it works. (Yes, it can be intimidating; no, it’s not just you.)

To clear up any confusion off the bat: All companies with 50 or more employees, as well as public agencies and public and private schools, are legally required to grant eligible employees (people who’ve worked for the employer for 12 months and for 1,250 hours within those 12 months) up to 12 weeks of medical leave a year, per the Family and Medical Leave Act. But it’s important to note that this law doesn’t apply to everyone, and leave still may not be simple to take for those it does.

Owen L., a former software engineer for a tech company*, took medical leave from August to December 2021. I emailed him to talk through the highs and lows of making that happen. Read on for his firsthand tips for pursuing it, moving through the process, and, of course, making sure you take care of yourself.

Don't just float through your work life. Photo: Mackenzie Freemire

Medical leave is for everyone, not just “exceptional” cases

If your condition is seriously getting in the way of you having a productive work day, then medical leave is for you. The point of this right is that your job will be protected while you take the time you need—within the federal law’s 12-week stipulation. Know that you may not get paid depending on the specifics of your company’s policy, but your healthcare benefits will continue. 

“I don’t remember the exact moment that I learned about taking medical leave, but I think it was during my first few months working at my then-employer,” Owen explains. “I remember thinking ‘Oh, it isn’t just reserved for a very tiny selection of people who are on their literal deathbeds?’”

Medical leave can be for anything from a mental health issue to any kind of physical ailment that gets in the way of your ability to perform your job. A sudden, severe accident or illness, a significant chronic health condition, or recovery from a major surgery (along with an endless range of other situations) would all qualify.

Know your story and be ready to put it to paper

When applying for paid leave, be sure to have documentation from your medical doctor of the issues you’re experiencing (such as a letter and/or redacted medical report)—and have it ready with as much advance notice as possible. Talk to your doctor about what they think, both in terms of the scope of your leave and how to best explain why you qualify for it.

Owen’s psychiatrist, for instance, signed off on the relevant attestations describing his mental-health situation. Still, his first application was denied. After talking to others who’d taken leave from his company (through an anonymous forum for employees), it became clear he’d need to provide a more spelled-out narrative of why this break was necessary.

The lesson: Even if you’re denied, consider reapplying with different or stronger documentation. Review your paperwork for missing info, and check with the party processing it for any clerical errors or feedback. (If it’s really a “no,” you can still pursue unpaid leave, if that’s viable for you.)

If your condition is seriously getting in the way of having a productive work day, then medical leave is for you.

Tell your team as much or as little as you want

You’re legally entitled to medical privacy at work, so talking to your team is up to you. Love your boss? Go ahead and share anything you want to about your leave, but you aren’t obligated to. “I just made a meeting with my manager and was like, ‘I’m going on medical leave for two months, maybe longer,’” says Owen. “I was really vague because I felt kind of self-conscious about it, but I also knew there was no expectation for me to say anything past that.”

Owen adds: “My manager responded by being like, ‘Oh god, I hope you’re okay! Definitely take the time you need.’ Overall, it’s probably the ideal response.” With coworkers, Owen was more open about what he was going through and even asked another coworker who’d also just taken leave for advice about how to approach it. This support made the whole thing seem less like an elephant in the room.

Figure out what you’ll need to return to work successfully

Leave can also be an opportunity to plan out how to prioritize your health when you do go back to work, whether those are support services you need at your job, changes in how you personally approach work, or other measures. Owen spent some of his time away figuring out how to steer his career in a direction that would minimize stress. “That time to rest and reassess everything was so important,” he says.

You can make an action plan for your return to work by thinking about if you need any new accommodations in your role. This might mean proposing or requesting things like switching to remote work, changing your schedule, or requiring more accessible tools and spaces in your workplace. You may even need to switch jobs within your company depending on the nature of your leave, which is also a protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Upon his return, Owen reports, “People were generally understanding that I would need some time to ‘ramp back up,’ which was helpful.” If you’re overwhelmed getting back into things, talk with your manager and team about your plan to ease in and what that timing could look like. Coming back to work shouldn’t be scary; start fresh with a work-life balance that works for you.

*Owen’s departure from the company didn’t have to do with his taking time away from work.

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