One of the most important and challenging issues in the workplace is accommodation of medical disabilities to the point of undue hardship. Federal and Provincial legislation requires employers to accommodate disabilities to the point of undue hardship.
The duty to accommodate is very fact specific process and raises tough questions for employers. Is the employee disabled? What accommodation is appropriate? Are any alternative accommodations possible? When does an accommodation amount to undue hardship? For many employers, a major resource for answering these tough accommodation questions is the doctor’s note provided by an employee.
Thankfully for employers, the governing body of doctors in Saskatchewan, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan (the “College“), has published a policy providing guidance to doctors on doctor’s notes and assessing returns to work (the “Policy“). The Policy was recently published on the College’s website in July of 2016.
The Policy contains detailed recommendations for how doctors should approach doctor’s notes and returns to work. The provisions of the Policy recognize that employers rely on doctors to assess fitness to return to work and may incur costs based on the information in the doctor’s note.
Some of the most important portions of the Policy from an employment and duty to accommodate perspective include:
- Planning for a return to work should begin at the first visit. Work and other activities should be encouraged (within any limitations);
- Employers may require documentation confirming a brief illness or injury, and an objective evaluation of functional limitations for a more severe illness or injury;
- It is the employer’s responsibility to manage a return to modified or full work duties with the benefit of objective input from physicians and other health care providers;
- To the extent possible, functional capacity and limitations should be assessed objectively (although some types of assessments may include subjective information from the employee);
- Employers need to know when they can reasonably expect a return to work to properly manage the plan changes in the workplace; and
- The Policy contains recommended steps for long term injuries where a gradual or modified return to work may be implemented. These steps include an employer proposing a modified work plan to the employee that the employee submits to a doctor for review.
The Policy also contains cautions to doctors. The Policy warns that errors or misinformation can harm individuals relying on the doctor’s note. The Policy also indicates that some restrictions may delay healing and lead to the impression that activity is harmful or dangerous and may lead to permanent disability.
In general, the Policy provides recommendations to doctors that should assist employers in managing the accommodation process.
Accommodation issues are highly contextual and dependent on the factual circumstances in the particular workplace. In difficult or complex cases, legal counsel should be consulted to address these issues.