Take Your Leave: How to Handle a Medical or Parental Leave

Practicing clinicians know all too well that often life intervenes into meticulously planned career path. Endocrine News shares a few tips on steps you can take if you have to be out of the office for a while.

For Sarah Hart-Unger, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital at Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, Fla., having children and being a physician was always a priority.

“I never felt like I wanted to hold back on having kids for the sake of my career,” Hart-Unger says. “I had fantastic role models who made it quite clear I could train in academic medicine and have children.” She is the mother of three children: a five- and seven-year-old, and a 15-month-old.

Hart-Unger, who co-founded the Best of Both Worlds podcast about balancing work and family life with time-management author Laura Vanderkam, is upfront about fully using maternity time to welcome her new children. She also cites hiring help for childcare, family meals, house-cleaning, and whatever other tasks needed to run a career and a family smoothly.

In the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for maternity or sick leave, provided that the company has at least 50 employees and the employee has worked for that company for at least a year. Other employers may offer additional benefits (such as paid time off) for their workers who need to take time off from their jobs.

“Whether you are in training or are an attending, if you are able to, and feel like you will benefit from a full 12 weeks, probably no one else will care if you took the longer leave. You will probably never regret it. I know many residents rush their leave, but I one-hundred-percent believe that a longer leave is worth it.”

“Don’t skimp on your leave itself, whether it’s for a maternity leave, a medical reason, or something else,” she says. “Whether you are in training or are an attending, if you are able to, and feel like you will benefit from a full 12 weeks, probably no one else will care if you took the longer leave. You will probably never regret it. I know many residents rush their leave, but I one-hundred-percent believe that a longer leave is worth it.”

Hart-Unger took 12 weeks of leave after each child was born, with one of them occurring six months after starting her first job. “I am very grateful that I had never had anything but support, as endocrinologists tend to be a supportive bunch,” she says.

Taking a leave from work — to care for a new child, to heal from an extended illness, to help with a family member’s medical or personal issues, for example — can require some planning and finesse. Working with your practice’s human resources department will help you fully understand what you are entitled to during a medical, sick or disability leave, and how you can make the most of time away from the office.

Approaching Human Resources 

Reach out to your contact at your company’s human relations department and give them time to prepare the right information for your particular situation, says Suzanne Goulden, a spokesperson for the Society of Human Resource Management based in Alexandria, Va.

“It can be hard to prepare if someone approaches me and says, ‘I need FMLA’ [immediately], because there are certain disability claim forms to complete,” Goulden explains. “If somebody is pregnant and emails me and says they are due in July, then great. We can meet next week.”

For a more urgent need, such as a person learning he will need surgery within a few days, Goulden says she works as quickly as she can to meet with the employee to set up the leave. Every company is different in terms of what paperwork needs to be completed. A maternity leave meeting will include information about how to add a newborn to an employee’s healthcare plan, for example, while a leave related to an injury that occurred while on the job requires working with the human resources department right away to ensure that worker’s compensation goes into effect at the right time. In this case, “go to human resources right away, as it is happening or after an immediate crisis,” says Goulden. “Sometimes with worker’s compensation, benefits can be delayed or denied if the employee goes to the wrong healthcare provider for care.”

Plan Ahead

If you are facing a leave, think about what you will need to function well. Financially, it can be hard to save money during your medical training when salaries are smaller and workloads are heavier, but doing so can help establish savings for the future. “It can be a challenge on a resident or fellowship salary, but you will eventually be an attending,” Hart-Unger says.

For a maternity leave, think about childcare as soon as possible; decide about what options work best so you can continue working, such as day care centers, home-based childcare settings, nannies, or au pairs. Research options by talking to others in similar situations (Hart-Unger recommends searching on Facebook for Physician Mom groups) as well as those in your area. “Look in your community; there are many other women and men in your position and it’s great to network with others with young kids.”

If you’re facing a part-time disability leave where you will need to take time for multiple physician’s appointments, try to schedule appointments first thing in the morning if you need to return to work for a full day afterward, or at lunch time, when you can leave the office without attracting as much attention with your absence.

“With all the challenges you have with a new baby, don’t let everything fall on you; share the load with others you created this situation with. Make sure you are getting the help you need.”

For medical leaves where you will be recovering at home, ask about what options your health insurance will cover, such as visiting nurses or partial or full payment for items needed at home, such as a knee scooter if you are on crutches. Can your local pharmacy deliver medications to your house if the prescriptions are called in from your doctor’s office?

Helping Hands

Once the leave has begun, don’t be shy about asking others for help. If you know you will need help with meal preparation or grocery shopping, let others know. When friends or family ask if they can help you with anything, give them specific tasks, such as picking up groceries and bringing them home to help put them away. Consider online vendors as well; with companies like Instacart or Peapod, you can have groceries delivered to your house sometimes within a few hours of ordering. Sites like DoorDash or Grubhub can also deliver meals to your house for a fee — look for introductory rates for new customers that will offer free or reduced delivery costs.

Outsourcing can help offload the feeling that you have to do it all, especially if you have a partner.

“With all the challenges you have with a new baby, don’t let everything fall on you; share the load with others you created this situation with,” Hart-Unger says. “Make sure you are getting the help you need.”

Hiring help, even temporarily such as a food-delivery service or a taxi for getting to and from medical appointments if you cannot drive yourself, will help you get things done.

“Take stock of your life and make sure you aren’t spending time doing things if you have the money to outsource,” Hart-Unger says. “You don’t need to be the only one to make dinner. Instead, think about how to make use of your limited time.”

-Alkon is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who is the author of the book, Balancing Pregnancy with Pre-Existing Diabetes: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby. She wrote about physician networking websites in the October 2017 issue.

 

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