While in and out of the office on FMLA for “depression and anxiety,” my psychologist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. My FMLA was recertified to bipolar disorder with instructions that I would need periodic extended absences while I tried and adjusted to new medications.  In fact, I am absent on FMLA today as I write this post (after waking up at around 3:30 this morning).  I thought I would share some basics on how FMLA works, and the special considerations that apply to those of us with Bipolar Disorder.

What is FMLA?

Bipolar Disorder and FMLAFMLA stands for the Family and Medical Leave Act and is codified in Chapter 28, Title 29 of the U.S. Code.  Congress designated The Depart of Labor to administer FMLA, and it does so through its Wage and Hour Division.  Only large employers, generally defined as having 50 or more full time employees, are required to offer FMLA. Not every employee qualifies.  In order to be eligible to take FMLA, an employee must meet the following criteria:

  1. Work for an employer subject to FMLA rules;
  2. Have worked for the employer for at least 12 months; and
  3. Have worked for at least 1,250 hours for the prior 12 months.

FMLA grants employees up to 60 calendar days of unpaid leave in a 12-month period, although your employer has the option to elect to pay you. While on leave, your employer must maintain your group-based medical and other benefits as if you were not on leave.  You still have to pay for these benefits through your payroll deduction.  If you take extended leave on an unpaid status, the employer may require you to make payments, or it may prepay for you under your cafeteria plan, with the option to “catch up” when you return to work.

The Department of Labor publishes both the Employee Guide and the Employer Guide, and I recommend reading both.

Bipolar Disorder and FMLA

Bipolar Disorder and FMLAYour employer will ordinarily require your doctor to certify that you are unable to work due to a “serious health condition.” From the Employer Guide, a serious health condition is “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.  Chronic conditions qualify, and “A chronic condition may cause episodic rather than a continuing period of incapacity.”  See pp. 25-27.

Those of us with Bipolar Disorder generally fall under the “chronic conditions” category where we experience episodes of incapacity.  This has been especially true in my case, as I continue to try different medication cocktails and adjust to their side effects.  Chronic conditions may require periods of intermittent leave, defined as an absence of less than three days, or continuous leave, defined as an absence of more than three days with treatment.  While some typical examples of conditions requiring continuous leave are pregnancy or cancer treatment, bipolar disorder can also qualify.

Satisfying Human Resources when FMLA is for Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder and FMLAThis is where it gets tricky with the Human Resources department.  Your certification must, with reasonable specificity, state the nature of your serious medical condition (usually the diagnosis), and your need for continuous leave.  In my case, my family practice doctor certified my FMLA for “depression and anxiety” with an anticipated 1-2 absences per week.  Shortly thereafter, my psychologist and psychiatrist diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder.

Because of the nature of the illness, my absences were more than my original certification, and my employer asked me to recertify.  While my employer could have required my psychiatrist to fill out the standard form, I am fortunate in that my employer accepted handwritten notes on my psychiatrist’s prescription pad describing my diagnosis and need for sporadic periods of continuous leave while not well controlled on medication.  The Human Resources department notified my relevant coworkers and supervisors of the upgraded status and the need for sporadic continuous absences.  I imagine (and my psychiatrist confirms) that experiences vary widely among employees and employers.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Bipolar Disorder and FMLAIf you have Bipolar Disorder and you plan to use FMLA as I do, for sporadic periods of consecutive (more than three days) leave, do not submit a simple “depression and anxiety” certification from your doctor.  Instead, make sure your doctor (ideally, a psychiatrist) specifies your diagnosis and clearly states your expected absences.  If you are adjusting medications, make sure that your doctor’s written explanation explains that you may have extended absences while adjusting to new medications.  Good key words are “sporadic consecutive leave.”  Those words will let your employer know that you will occasionally be out for more than 1-2 days even though you are not having a baby, back surgery, or cancer treatment.

Do not hide your Bipolar Disorder diagnosis from your Human Resources department.  Bipolar Disorder is not depression, and some courts have held that depression does not qualify under FMLA.  You do not have depression–you have a serious health condition–and you and your doctor need to make this clear to your employer.  Your boss does not need to know your diagnosis, but Human Resources does.

Finally, if you do not need to take three or more days at a time, don’t.  My own experience is that the anxiety associated with returning to work can be paralyzing, leading to additional absences.  If you are able to work, then work.  When you can’t, follow your employer’s procedures for FMLA absences.

Bipolar Disorder and FMLA: A Delicate Balancing Act

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