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GuidesEmployee experienceMedical leaves of absence: how do they work, and who qualifies?

Medical leaves of absence: how do they work, and who qualifies?

Last updated

23 November 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

Medical leaves of absence and short-term and long-term disability benefits are measures that can help out in a time of crisis.

Medical leaves of absence enable employees to take time off work to deal with personal or family health difficulties without worrying about losing their jobs. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) supports this by granting certain qualified employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually.

Employees can also receive short- and long-term disability benefits. These benefits may be available when an employee is unable to do their job—either temporarily or in the long term—owing to health or family-related issues. They help financially during the disability, ensuring that medical or care expenses don’t make things worse.

What is a medical leave of absence?

Leaving work temporarily for medical reasons is known as a medical leave of absence. It’s comparable to pausing your obligations to restore your well-being.

This type of leave is given when someone is unable to fulfill their job due to physical or mental health problems, such as a significant illness, injury, surgery, or stress-related circumstances.

Laws and practices differ depending on the location of employment. However, employees typically have the right to take time off for medical reasons without worrying about losing their jobs or suffering negative consequences. People can get the medical care they need, undertake any necessary procedures or therapies, and take enough time to recuperate before returning to their regular routine.

How does a medical leave of absence work for mental health conditions?

Employees can take time off work to focus on their mental health. The employee will likely need to start this process by speaking with a mental health expert who can make a diagnosis and offer a treatment plan. Once the diagnosis has been determined, the worker should tell their employer that they need a medical leave of absence and submit any supporting information requested by the employer.

Ensure you understand your company’s specific regulations for paid and unpaid leave, as they vary between businesses. For example, according to some policies, you may occasionally have to use accumulated sick or vacation days while on leave.

The length of leave will depend on the severity of the condition and individual circumstances. However, most medical leave ranges from a few weeks to a few months and is determined by a healthcare professional.

Throughout this period, communication between the employee, their healthcare provider, and the employer is crucial to ensure everyone is informed about progress and potential return-to-work plans.

What is the Family and Medical Leave Act?

A federal statute in the US called the Family and Medical Leave Act enables eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family and medical needs.

Enacted in 1993, the FMLA protects employees’ jobs during personal or family health crises or the birth or adoption of a child. It helps strike a balance between work and family obligations.

Employees must have worked for their company for at least a year and have accrued at least 1,250 hours to qualify for FMLA benefits. The Act ensures employees are not penalized for prioritizing their health or a loved one’s well-being by safeguarding their job positions during leave.

Some states have waived the waiting period for FMLA, so it’s important to understand what your state and employer offer when considering using this type of leave.

Who and what qualifies for FMLA?

The ability to take medical leave isn’t universal. Instead, it’s based on several variables and conditions.

Individuals must have been employed by their employer for at least 12 months with a minimum of 1,250 hours worked over the previous 12-month period to be eligible for FMLA.

Additionally, firms with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius must comply with FMLA.

These standards, however, might change based on state laws and regulations. Reviewing your company’s policy or communicating directly with your company’s administration or human resources (HR) department is essential to understand what’s right for you.

Which events qualify for a medical leave of absence under FMLA?

Any health issue or life event that makes it difficult for you to perform your regular work duties is a cause for leave under FMLA. This can apply to physical or mental conditions, the birth or adoption of a child, and significant life events. Here are some examples:

  • Long-term illnesses

  • Recovery from surgery

  • Injuries

  • Psychological problems like depression or anxiety disorders

  • Taking care of a family member with a disability or medical condition

  • The birth or adoption of a child

  • A qualifying military exigency (such as caring for a military member’s children or preparing for a family member’s imminent deployment)

For further information on the precise requirements and documentation needed, speak to your employer’s HR department, study the company’s leave of absence policy, or inquire with your state’s labor law department.

Although circumstances vary, it’s important to provide plenty of notice and proper documentation from healthcare professionals to support your need for a medical leave of absence.

How many times can you claim FMLA?

You have the right to take FMLA leave for up to 12 weeks in a 12-month period. The period is defined by your employer. It could be a calendar year or a 12-month rolling period. It’s best to check with your employer as to their policy.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to provide medical certification or other documentation to verify your need for FMLA leave. Employers can limit its use if they suspect fraudulent claims.

Ultimately, while you have the opportunity to take FMLA leave multiple times throughout your career, understanding the guidelines and following them is crucial.

What are the length and pay requirements of a medical leave of absence under FMLA?

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible employees in the US are allowed to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a calendar year or rolling 12-month period to manage a serious health condition. The condition may affect them or a member of their immediate family.

FMLA doesn’t mandate that businesses pay their employees during this time off. However, some businesses might include paid medical leave in their list of benefits. You may also be allowed to use accumulated sick leave, vacation days, and even short-term disability to receive pay during your absence, depending on your state’s or employer’s laws.

Remember: these laws can change, so it’s always a good idea to check with your employer and research the relevant rules in your state.

Short- and long-term disability insurance

Short-term disability from work is a kind of insurance that offers financial assistance to those who cannot work because of health-related issues.

Depending on the conditions of the policy and the person’s medical condition, it normally lasts for a short period—a few weeks to a few months. A portion of the person’s income is typically paid out by short-term disability insurance during this time, helping them meet their financial commitments while they recover.

This insurance can be quite beneficial, providing stability and peace of mind during trying times. Short-term disability benefits can offer temporary income replacement until a person is able to return to work, whether they require time off for surgery recuperation, a serious illness or injury, or even problems after childbirth.

It’s important to note that eligibility criteria and benefit amounts may vary depending on the specific insurance policy and employer, so it’s essential to review these details when considering short-term disability coverage from work.

An individual who becomes unable to work due to a long-term issue such as a disease, accident, injury, or other incapacity is protected financially by long-term disability from work insurance. It’s intended to restore some of the income lost during this time and help support the person’s financial security, as well as that of their family.

Long-term disability benefits can offer assistance for a protracted period of time, sometimes until retirement age or until the person is ready to return to work. In contrast, short-term disability benefits normally cover a fixed period (typically 3–6 months). It’s important to check with your insurance provider about the length of time insurance is available and the incidents it covers.


How do I write a medical leave email?

When writing a medical leave email, maintain a professional tone and provide all the necessary information concisely and informatively.

Begin by addressing the email appropriately, using a formal salutation such as “Dear [Supervisor’s Name].”

State the purpose of the email right away, clearly expressing your need for medical leave due to an illness or medical condition.

Provide specific dates for your absence and indicate if you have any scheduled appointments or treatments during that period.

Include any relevant documentation supporting your request for leave (such as a doctor’s note).

Express gratitude for their understanding and assure them that you will complete any pending work before your absence and delegate responsibilities if necessary.

Finally, offer your contact information for urgent matters and thank your supervisor for their support.

How do I take a leave of absence from work due to stress?

Educate yourself about your company’s policies on leaves of absence for stress-related issues. Familiarize yourself with any procedures or paperwork you may need to complete before requesting time off.

You’ll need to work with your healthcare provider to determine a diagnosis and anticipated length of leave. From there, it’s important to plan your leave so that both you and your employer can prepare accordingly.

Are leaves of absence and FMLA the same thing?

No. A leave of absence and the Family and Medical Leave Act are not the same thing—although there may be some overlap in certain instances.

A leave of absence refers to a period of time when an employee takes an authorized break from work for personal reasons, such as health issues, family responsibilities, or other pressing matters.

On the other hand, FMLA is a federal law that provides eligible employees with unpaid, job-protected leave for specific medical and family-related reasons and/or the birth or adoption of a child.

While both allow employees to take time off from work, FMLA specifically outlines qualifying reasons for leave and ensures job protection during that period.

Where can I find more information about FMLA?

You can visit the US Department of Labor’s website to read more about the Family and Medical Leave Act. Also, check with your HR department and your state’s labor law website to determine if either provides a more generous option. For example, different states determine their own rules and regulations around paid family leave.

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