Asking for a leave of absence from work — whether you need time off for illness, bereavement, maternity leave or other reasons — is one of the most stressful requests an employee can make.
But even if you’re worried, you shouldn’t let your fears prevent you from requesting a leave of absence. Framing your leave of absence request in the right way can help you avoid conflicts and make approval more likely.
Here’s how to ask for a leave of absence from your job:
— Understand your legal rights regarding time off and pay for a leave of absence.
— Make your initial leave of absence request in person or via video conference rather than in writing.
— Give sufficient advance notice before taking a leave of absence.
— If possible, work with your boss to develop an agreeable leave of absence plan.
— Keep track of relevant paperwork related to your leave of absence.
Here’s what you need to know about asking for a leave of absence.
What Is a Leave of Absence (LOA)?
A leave of absence is an extended period of time off of work that an employer grants an employee.
It’s important to understand federal and state leave of absence laws — as well as your employer’s policies — that relate to your request before you ask your boss for a leave of absence. This is because depending on your request, you may or may not continue to receive a paycheck and employee benefits during your leave. Plus, understanding your workplace rights will help you approach the conversation more knowledgeably and negotiate the best possible solution for you and your employer.
Voluntary and Mandatory Leaves of Absence, or LOA
There are a number of acceptable reasons to take extended time off from your job through an employer-approved leave of absence. Some specific types of mandatory leaves, such as maternity leave, come with protections under federal law. But your employer isn’t mandated by law to approve your request for a voluntary leave of absence — for example, to take an extended vacation — so it’s important to know which type you’re requesting.
What Is the Family and Medical Leave Act?
Many common types of extended leaves of absence fall under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. The FMLA is a federal labor law that guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during the year to take care of a health condition that you or an immediate family member is facing, or to bond with a new child. The act also allows eligible employees to take up to 26 weeks to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness if the employee is a spouse, child, parent or the next of kin to that service member.
Although your employer must offer you a job when you return from your leave of absence under the FMLA, it may not be the same job that you had before your leave, though it should be an equivalent position. Though FMLA leave is unpaid, you may be able to use paid leave while you’re taking FMLA leave. Employers may also use a strategy in which they delay or supplement FMLA leave by using up paid time off, too.
Eligible Reasons to Take Time Off Under the FMLA
The eligibility criteria for taking a FMLA leave of absence include:
— To deal with a serious health condition of your own or of a family member.
— For the birth of a child and to bond with the newborn, or placement of a child with the employee for adoption or foster care.
— For specified reasons related to certain military deployments or to care for a covered service member.
However, not every worker is eligible for job protection under the FMLA. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not mandated to follow FMLA law; only employers who have had at least 50 employees for at least 20 weeks in the current or previous year must comply with the FMLA.
As an employee, to be eligible for an FMLA leave of absence, you must work for employers that have 50 or more employees working within 75 miles of their office. You also need to have worked at your job for at least 12 months — and have put in at least 1,250 hours of service — before taking a leave of absence under the FMLA.
There many additional regulations and provisions related to taking leave under the FMLA. For more information on FMLA legislation and its full requirements, visit the Department of Labor’s website.
[READ: What Is Flexible Time Off?]
What Are Good Reasons to Take a Leave of Absence (LOA)?
If you’d like to request an extended leave, there are many appropriate reasons to do so — even if your situation is not covered under the FMLA or another employment law. For example, you might request a leave of absence to take a sabbatical, finish graduate school, recover from job-related or personal stressors, attend jury duty, mourn the death of a loved one or complete funeral arrangements for a family member.
When these situations don’t come with legal protections, your employer may have policies outlined in its employee handbook to help deal with these circumstances. Can an employer deny unpaid time off? The fact is that approval of these more voluntary leaves of absence are at your employer’s discretion.
What Are Bad Reasons to Take a Leave of Absence (LOA)?
Although you can request a leave of absence for any reason, your employer may be more likely to approve some types of leave of absence requests than others. How you ask — and your relationship with your employer — can be important factors in whether or not your leave of absence gets approved.
If the reason that you’re requesting a leave is more personal, such as to attend a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program, you may want to explain your reason more generally in terms of health or medical treatment to maintain your privacy.
Another consideration when considering whether to take a leave of absence should be your finances. Make sure you have enough savings in the bank to take an unpaid leave of absence.
In some cases, an employer may put an employee on a leave of absence that the employee didn’t request. For example, if an employee is accused of improper behavior like harassment, a company may place the worker on a paid leave of absence while investigating the claims.
How Should You Ask for a Leave of Absence (LOA)?
One of the most important things you can do to prepare to ask for a leave of absence is to do your due diligence. Research your company’s policies on leaves of absence — as well as what federal law says about the type of leave you’re requesting — before asking for a leave of absence.
Timing is also a factor in considering how to ask for a leave of absence, since being aware of your boss’s staffing issues — and helping to plan and prepare for them — can increase your chances of having your leave of absence approved. Give your supervisor a heads up about your request for a leave with as much lead time as possible. This will help ensure that your team isn’t scrambling at the last minute to reassign your work or hire a temporary replacement to cover your job duties.
When you ask for a leave of absence, go into the discussion prepared to collaborate with your boss to come up with a plan that works best for both parties. Perhaps you can suggest continuing to work remotely for a few weeks while recovering from an operation, or aim to take a voluntary leave of absence during the company’s relaxed offseason, not during the busy season.
If your leave is under the FMLA, keep a paper trail of FMLA-related documents and correspondence. This will help avoid frantically searching through your work emails and medical forms when you’re trying to care for a newborn or recover from an operation.
Finally, if you understand your true value as an employee, it can help strengthen your case when asking for a leave of absence. If you’re a star employee, then your employer will be more likely to accommodate your leave-of-absence request because they won’t want to lose you.
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Update 07/22/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.