If you’ve been away from work for a significant amount of time while you were on long-term disability (LTD) leave, you may understandably feel anxious and unsure of what to expect if you’re returning to work. In this post, you’ll learn about how a return-to-work plan is generally constructed, you and your employer’s rights and obligations and what to do if you experience a relapse during a return to work from a disability.

The concern for many employment lawyers, however, is that an employee is being “forced” to return to work because their employer has threatened their job if they don’t go back to work – despite the medical opinion of the employee’s health care provider(s) that the employee is not ready to return to work. This is a violation of your rights, and your employer could face severe repercussions for their actions. Your health and safety should be your only concern and the primary concern of your employer and insurance provider. Unfortunately, far too often, this is not the case.

If your employer has threatened or harassed you to return to work, speak to us right away.

Disclaimer: The information in this guide and everywhere else on this website is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice of any kind. No lawyer-client relationship is created by accessing or otherwise using Ertl Lawyers’ website or by communicating with a lawyer or staff member. If you need legal advice, contact one of the leading disability lawyers in Toronto at Ertl Lawyers. We’re more than happy to speak with you.

First Thing’s First, Is Your Return to Work Voluntary and Recommended by Your Health Care Provider?

You should only return to work if you feel you are able to and your doctor clears you for work. Too many workers in Ontario are unaware of their employment rights, and many go back to work too soon and either reaggravate their previous condition or suffer a new, worsening condition.

It’s common for an employer to call an employee and ask about their timeline for returning to work. They’re allowed to do this; they’re even allowed to be persistent in their inquiries. They’re not allowed, however, to ask you about your disability, threaten your job or harass you with their calls.

It can be hard to tell the difference between persistence and harassment, so speak to a top employment lawyer in Toronto if you’re even slightly unsure if your employer crossed the line.

Insurance companies are also allowed to call and ask about your progress and when you’ll be returning to work. However, if they tell you that if you do not return to work by a certain date that your benefits will be stopped, speak to us right away.

The Decision to Return to Work from Disability Leave on a Return-to-Work Plan

Employers and insurance companies routinely reach out to an employee on Long-term disability leave to discuss a return-to-work plan. During that conversation, you would likely discuss when they want you to return to work and the accommodations you’d be provided by your employer as you gradually resume your duties.

These calls are commonly made early in an employee’s medically-recommended treatment plan, and as an employee, you have an obligation to respond to communications from your employer and the insurance company about returning to work.

If this happens, remain calm and during the conversation with your employer, ask questions to ensure you completely understand, and write down in detail:

  • When they expect you to return to work;
  • The exact duties they expect you to perform and their expectations for successful completion of those tasks;
  • The timeline your employer feels is appropriate for you to gradually return to your full duties; and
  • Accommodations you will be provided along the way.

The purpose of workplace accommodations is to help remove any barriers that might prevent you from completing the tasks expected of you. They should be based on your specific needs and made on an individual basis. Your employer is required to do what is necessary to provide accommodations up to the point of undue hardship.

The accommodations your employer might offer include:

  • Modified Hours. This can mean a shortened workday or workweek, time-off flexibility to attend appointments, longer breaks or the ability to take unscheduled breaks.
  • Modified Duties. Your employer may change your regular duties or give you different tasks and allow you extra time to complete your work.
  • Work Environment Modifications. Your employer may offer to change the location of your workspace to provide you with accessibility, alter the lighting in your workspace, or make other alterations.
  • Supervisory Modifications. Your employer may change the priority of your tasks or the way you are given instructions and directions, i.e., providing them in writing or allowing you to tape-record them.
  • Additional training or coaching. You may be offered training to complete modified duties, a buddy system or other forms of additional support.

You do not have to commit to anything or give an answer either way until you have an honest and detailed conversation with your healthcare provider.   It is important that you provide your employer with your medically indicated restrictions, so they have the opportunity to appropriately accommodate you.

A doctor and patient discuss a return to work plan

During the consultation with your doctor, discuss the duties they expect you to perform, the physical and mental work required to complete each one, the accommodations offered and the timeframe they gave you for their plan.

If your doctor feels it’s too soon for you to return to work, ask them for a letter stating their opinion and attach that letter to an email to your employer and insurance adjustor stating that you and your doctor don’t feel that you are ready to return to work and that doing so will cause you harm.

If, however, your healthcare provider clears you to return to work under those or similar conditions, you are obligated as an employee to follow your doctor’s recommendations, make a reasonable effort to go back to work and seek accommodations to help you fulfill your duties.

Your Rights and What to Expect When Returning to Work from Disability Leave

Every return to work from disability leave is different, and yours should be based on your disability, work, workplace environment, specific accommodations and other factors.

Below are some of the things that may happen when you return to work and your rights and protections when returning to work after being on long-term disability leave.

Your First Day Back

Your employer or manager may have a schedule or plan for your first day(s) back at work. On your first day, you might meet with your manager to discuss the return-to-work plan. You may, for example:

  • Review the return-to-work plan to ensure you are both on the same page as to what it says, how you will determine the successful completion of each stage of a gradual plan and address issues.
  • Discuss your workload, job duties and performance to ensure that both your expectations and your manager’s expectations are the same.
  • Discuss any extra training, time or resources that may be required.
  • Confirm that you have an easily accessible list of resources and supports if you have any difficulties or start feeling overwhelmed. (There are more resources available here.)

Speaking to Coworkers About Your Disability

You may also be concerned about what to say to coworkers if they ask about your leave or disability. The details regarding your leave are private and confidential, and it’s better not to discuss them. If you’re unsure of how to handle these conversations, speak with someone in HR.

If you decide to discuss your disability or leave with coworkers, be careful with what you share and only share information you feel comfortable providing.

What to Do if You Have Difficulties During Your Return-to-Work

As you begin working, you may find it difficult to meet the expectations of your plan or start feeling overwhelmed. It’s crucial to be honest with yourself and how you’re feeling to recognize these signs early. They may include:

  • Becoming easily agitated or frustrated with tasks or coworkers.
  • Not being able to block out distractions.
  • Difficulty focusing or staying focused.

If you’re having difficulties performing your duties or you experience a flare-up of symptoms related to your disability, it’s crucial to notify your employer and speak with your healthcare provider right away. Your doctor may recommend altering your return-to-work plan, seeking further accommodations or that you return to the long-term disability leave.

A doctor supporting a patient during counseling

Going Back on Long-Term Disability Leave After a Return to Work

Before going back on leave, ensure that HR or your manager records your attempt to return to work and notify your insurance adjuster via email of what happened when you tried to go back to work and that you and your doctor feel that you need to be placed back on long-term disability. Attach a letter from your doctor plus any related letters you receive from your employer.

Most long-term disability plans have a “recurrence clause” that allows you to resume receiving benefits if a return-to-work plan fails, but they also typically have a time limit before you would have to start a new application for benefits. The time limit will be stated in the policy.

If the insurance company refuses to reinstate your LTD benefits, speak with us right away.

Learn more about your rights regarding other types of leave like maternity vs parental leave and how sick leave works.

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