If you recently learned you have coronary artery disease, you may worry about whether you can go back to work. For most people, it’s fine to get back on the job.
“Treatments for coronary artery disease today are so improved” that more people with the condition are able to work today than ever before, says Haider Warraich, MD, associate director of the Heart Failure Program at the VA Boston Healthcare System.
Case in point: Warraich’s 2018 study in the medical journal Circulation looked at over 9,000 people who’d had a heart attack and found that out of those who were employed, only 1 in 10 people either cut back on their work hours or quit their jobs.
If you do return to work, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects your right to ask for any changes you need to carry out your duties. Employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations,” such as a different work schedule or a transfer to a more suitable position.
But not everyone with CAD can go back full steam. If your job involves stressful 60-hour work weeks, for example, your cardiologist may advise cutting back or even switching to a less-demanding career, Warraich says.
But for the most part, “As more employers have become more accommodating, and we’ve gotten better treatments, we’re seeing that the majority of patients with coronary artery disease are able to return successfully,” he says.
Here are some top tips from employment lawyers on how to navigate your job post-CAD:
Start with the human resources department. If you have a great relationship with your boss, you might reach out to them first. But you’re best off contacting your HR department, says Jeffrey Rhodes, an employment attorney at McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes, LLP in Arlington, VA. “They will be the most familiar with what they’re legally expected to do under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he says. Your HR department also knows it must follow the confidentiality rules in the ADA, so they should know exactly what they can and cannot reveal to your supervisors.
“Unfortunately, sometimes people who have very friendly relationships with their employers overshare, which they may end up regretting later,” he says.
Outline the accommodations you expect. Before you contact HR, have a detailed discussion with your cardiologist about what you’ll need to be able to return to work successfully, says Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.
These can include:
- Time off for medical appointments.
- More frequent rest breaks. If you’re on your feet all day, for example, you may request a scooter to help you move around or permission to sit instead of stand while you work.
- Limits on lifting. This request is especially common if you’ve had surgery or a recent heart attack. Over time, as you recover, you will be able to lift more.
- Breaks to take your medication.
- Limits on travel.
It’s a good idea to have your cardiologist write a letter detailing why you need the accommodation and for how long, Ndjatou says. A request doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it.
“Your employer has to, by law, research your request, but if they can prove that it’s very expensive or disruptive to their operations, legally they can deny it,” Ndjatou says.
But they do have to make a good faith effort. “They can’t just have one conversation with you and then say, ‘We can’t do that,’” Ndjatou says. If you ask for a transfer to a less stressful position because of your coronary artery disease, for example, they need to actively look for opportunities within the company to move you to, even if one’s not available right now.
Request Family and Medical Leave (FMLA). This federal law may protect you if you have to take time off of work to recover from your coronary artery disease. You may be eligible for FMLA if:
- You’ve worked for your employer for at least 1 year.
- In the past year, you’ve worked at least 1,250 hours for your employer (around 24 hours a week).
- Your employer employs at least 50 people within 75 miles of where you work.
If you’re covered, you’re entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year. Your employer can’t fire you for taking leave or refuse to give you your job back when you return. They also need to continue paying for your health insurance.
Stay tight lipped at work. You may be close with your co-workers, but you should still be careful about how much you reveal about accommodations related to your coronary artery disease, Rhodes says.
“Keep in mind that if you share personal, private health information with co-workers, it may spread through the company and have negative consequences,” he says. “If that does happen, it would be hard to hold your employer accountable because it would be hard to prove it was because of their lack of confidentiality.” Disclose just enough to make clear why you need an accommodation, but save the in-depth discussions for your friends outside the office.
Know your legal options. Your employer can’t retaliate against you for requesting accommodations, Rhodes says. If you feel like you are facing retaliation or being pushed to quit, find a local employment attorney for advice. You can also file a complaint yourself with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They will notify your company within 10 days and investigate whether there’s valid reason to believe discrimination occurred. The average time to investigate and resolve a charge is around 10 months.