Have you ever wondered what you are obligated to disclose to an employer when you are sick, need an accommodation or take a leave? Most people think that they must bare ALL in order to ensure that their needs are met, but you don’t. And you shouldn’t. Even if you feel like you trust your boss or manager, it is important to think twice about what you say and how you say it because it may used against you in some way, even if it is illegal. Although there are laws in place to protect employees against health discrimination or worse, termination, there are often loopholes in the system that could come back to bite you.
My advice: BE CAREFUL.
Here is my story to drive this point home. In my late 20s I was working as a counsellor for an organization that worked with youth and teens in crisis. At the time, I was on an overnight shift on a four on/four off cycle. It was incredibly meaningful work but as you can imagine draining and exhausting for anyone. At some point I got pregnant with my first son, went on mat leave and unexpectedly ended up diagnosed with post-partum depression. This was a tough diagnosis to swallow for a new excited mom and a counsellor.
I was treated with meds, prescribed sleep and therapy, which did this mama good. But when it was time to return to work a year later, my doctor matter-of-factly said, “No more overnights. They mess with your circadian rhythms and are a risk factor for depression. You need an accommodation at work. I will write you a note to give to your HR department and they will have to find something else for you.” I did not ask my doctor what was put in the note, nor did I think it was something to alert my union rep to. It seemed straight forward and made sense. Also, it was an organization whose mission was to help those suffering with mental health challenges. Of course, they would be compassionate AND accommodating. That was a no-brainer (or so I thought).
I don’t remember exactly how the rest played out because this was almost 13 years ago but it was a gong show. After receiving the request and note from my doctor, my employer told me that they had serious concerns as to whether I was “fit” to do my job at all. They wanted to put me on probation and would not allow me to come back to work. Luckily at the time I was in a union and was afforded representation, which fought for me retain my position and accommodation. But it was a humiliating process and in the end I had to have supervision to ensure I was capable of doing my job.
This was blatant health discrimination and it happens all the time because of poor HR practices and employees who don’t know their rights.
Here are a few tips to try and protect yourself in a situation that arises around your health:
1Generic Doctor’s Notes
Did you know that you do not have to disclose what your health issue is? Whether you have cancer or even the flu, providing a note does not mean you have to be explicit about the issue. If your place of work requires more documentation or asks for details, my advice is to say no. You are entitled to your privacy and do not have to disclose any details of your illness regardless of your position.
2Ask for What You Need
If your doctor is recommending a leave, take the amount of time they recommend instead of trying to shorten it. Your employer cannot fire you based on a health issue but can fire you based on a performance issue. It is better to come back well and refreshed as opposed to trying to fake it at work. If you need more time, see if your health-care provider can help to extend your leave.
This is a big one. Save all emails separately from your work email when it comes to your health or a leave. I have heard stories of people being frozen out of their email when trying to dig up evidence of a correspondence. Even if you forward emails to your personal account or copy and paste them in a Word doc, you will be able to access them if needed. Also document any conversations you have on the phone or in person when it comes to a leave or your health. You just need to record the date, who the conversation was with, and what was said to your knowledge. This will help fill in any blanks with timelines or what was said.
4When in Doubt, Get Representation
If you feel that there is something sketchy about the way you are being treated when it comes to your health and your job, seek counsel. In a union position you will have a union representative who can be your first point of contact to start a negotiation process with management. Issues rarely go all the way to arbitration, but if they do, you will have a legal representative. If you are not unionized, consider seeking advice from a labour lawyer. There are some great free resources too like the Community & Legal-aid Services at York University.
5Know Your Health Plan
If you have private insurance, you may be eligible for short-term disability if you want to be compensated during a sick leave. Sometimes your health plan will only cover long-term disability, which kicks in after a 12-week sick period. Many provincial plans that have employment insurance have short-term disability if your private insurance won’t cover it.
At the end of the day, your health (and your dignity) is most important. No job is worth putting yourself through the agony of humiliation or degradation because you need to take care of yourself. Know your limits and ALWAYS cover your back.
For the past 7 years, Shawna has been managing Rethink’s support and education programs for young women with breast cancer, using her clinical expertise to create and administer programs that have a national reach and global interest.