A Patient’s Guide to Taking Medical Time Off Work

Paul Pendler

Paul Pendler, Psy.D., ABPP
Assistant Professor, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine,
Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

When mental health issues arise, all areas of a person’s life tend to suffer—work included. Under certain circumstances, people with mental health conditions may need to seek time off from employment in order to focus on recovery and restore functioning.

If you suspect you might need time off for mental health reasons, listed below are some helpful guidelines for how to engage your practitioner and your workplace on this issue.

1. Understand that having a “diagnosis” does not immediately constitute being “unable to work.”

There is an important distinction between a list of symptoms and how they might prevent someone from fulfilling the duties of their job. Often patients will tell their practitioner that they’re “depressed” or “stressed and anxious,” but these terms don’t address exactly how the patient is unable to function at work.

2. Be willing to explain to your doctors the specific duties of your job and how, exactly, your condition is preventing you from doing these tasks.
For example, if your job requires you to multi-task and recall pieces of information, a period of depression might leave you unable to complete complex tasks or retain details. It is more efficient and effective for both you and your doctor to explain your specific difficulties with job tasks versus just describing yourself as “depressed.” In order to get time off work approved, more and more doctors and mental health professionals are required to specify the tasks you are unable to accomplish as opposed to merely stating a diagnosis.

3. Be prepared to work with your doctor to establish a treatment plan, including an estimated return to work date.
Even when you’re off work, it’s important to think about when you’ll return. Your treatment will include discussions about what needs to happen for you to go back. To this end, be prepared to be seen by your medical professional more frequently and advocate for yourself in this regard. For example, if you receive medication from a primary care physician to manage your mood or anxiety, be willing to discuss your treatment and evaluate alternative strategies, including dosing and/or drug changes, obtaining a psychiatrist appointment, and being seen more frequently in psychotherapy. The more effective your treatment, the sooner you can return to work. In addition, depending on your impairments, your doctors may want to introduce you to work part-time as part of a transition back to full-time.

4. It is important to maintain as much of a normal schedule of sleep-wake as possible, even while off work.
Try to continue with a schedule that approximates your work schedule. This means getting up at the same time as you normally would, getting dressed, acting “as if” you are working, and continuing to operate in your life. People return to work sooner when they maintain this rhythm versus taking an unstructured approach to their lives.

5.You’ll never be obligated to tell a direct manager about a specific medical condition.
While every job may have different policies about paid medical time off, you are never obligated to disclose a medical condition to a line of business manager. Patient privacy and confidentiality is applicable throughout the duration of your leave. Instead, you can just state that you’re following a doctor’s recommendation to take time off work. Also, be sure to learn about and comply with your employer’s specific work policies on absences; stating only that you’re following a doctor’s recommendation will likely be inadequate and you will need to provide whatever documentation your employer requires.

The capacity to work remains an important indicator of overall health and adaptation. If you are unable to work, consider it a critical sign of needing help and contact your doctors immediately.


Your Turn

  • What has been your experiencing in asking for (or being asked for, if you’re an employer) time off for mental health reasons?
  • How can employees and employers help each other in getting needed mental health care?
  • In what ways would your request for time off differ for a mental health versus physical health condition?

Dr. Pendler is a Board-Certified Clinical Psychologist in clinical practice in Chicago. He works with individuals and couples with a wide variety of psychological complaints. He is an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. In addition, he consults with employers who have a short-term disability absence programs and assists disability department staff in making appropriate determinations about medical time off for psychiatric conditions.

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