An employee provides you with a doctor’s note which advises that he will be away from work for six weeks. It’s that one-liner doctor’s prescription pad note that reads “Jim will be absent from work for six weeks due to illness “, or so you believe it reads because you can barely make out the illegible handwriting. In the past, Jim has taken numerous leaves that he has excused using similar notes but you are concerned about this absence given its intended length.
The one-liner doctor’s prescription pad note is a common frustration for employers. These situations get particularly challenging when employers receive serial unhelpful notes from the employee’s physician, which appear to extend the absence on an indefinite basis. Because the notes come from a physician, many employers believe there is not much that they can do except wait out the period of absence and hope that the employee returns to work…someday. However, employers should be aware that you have obligations under legislation that entitle you to request that the employee provide more detailed medical information. This means not only medical opinion that excuses the absence, but which also provides prognosis information indicating when the employer can expect a return to work on a full or modified basis, if possible.
This right to request more detailed prognosis information arises largely from the employer’s obligation to accommodate as required by the Human Rights Code. A one-liner medical note, particularly when attempting to justify a long-term absence, does not provide enough information for an employer to assess whether it can accommodate an employee’s return to work. To fulfill its accommodation obligation, an employer needs, and is entitled to, medical opinion from the employee’s treating physician that adequately sets out prognosis information including:
- the limitations that the employee is experiencing (e.g. lifting, walking, sitting restrictions);
- how long the employee is expected to experience any identified limitations;
- an assessment of what duties he or she is capable of performing;
- whether the employee is receiving treatment for his or her medical condition;
- if the employee is capable of returning to work on a modified basis to perform duties within his or her restrictions; and
- when the employee can be expected to return to work to perform his or her full duties.
Employers should note that they are not entitled to information about the employee’s diagnosis; the focus is on prognosis information and, specifically, when the employee can be expected to make a return to work on a full or modified basis.
Insisting on sufficient medical information is a key first step to effectively managing attendance in the workplace. Ensuring that you have adequate medical information from the outset is the best way to set employee and doctor expectations that unhelpful prescription pad notes will not be acceptable. Employers should include in their company policies the specific scope of medical information that will be required to justify an absence and to determine accommodation possibilities. Clearly establishing this expectation from the outset of the employment relationship is an effective strategy to ensure compliance.
This blog is provided as information and a summary of workplace legal issues.
This information is not intended as legal advice.