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Obtaining and responding to medical information in the workplace: A summary for employees


A printable PDF version of this information sheet is available.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission offers a detailed interpretive bulletin called Obtaining and responding to medical information in the workplace, which provides comprehensive information for employers, employees, unions and doctors about the human rights aspects of this topic. This publication summarizes the key points for employees from the interpretive bulletin. It discusses medical information as it relates to human rights issues in the area of employment only. It is for educational purposes and is not intended to be legal advice.

Questions about:

Employers request medical information to make decisions about accommodating an employee or potential employee or to confirm an employee's absence for medical reasons. Employees, employers, unions and doctors all play a role in gathering reasonable medical information on an employee's disability.

  • Employees and unions have a duty to actively participate in supplying information to support a medical absence or request for accommodation and to respond to employer requests for medical information.
  • Employers play a key role in requesting relevant medical information.
  • Doctors are expected to respond to requests from patients for medical information.

In this publication, employees will find:

  • information on the rights and responsibilities of an employee in providing medical information;
  • a Sample Medical Absence Form that may be used to confirm that an absence from work is for medical reasons; and
  • a Sample Medical Ability to Work Form that may be used to supply information on accommodations, a disability leave, or returning to work after a medical leave.

What information can an employer request from an employee when an employee is absent for medical reasons?

When an employee is absent for medical reasons it is reasonable to ask them for medical information confirming that their absence is for medical reasons and an approximation of the date they are expected to return to work.

Generally, employees have a right to privacy regarding their medical information. To assess an employee's needs, the employer may request information that only:

  • relates to the operation of the workplace and the job duties of the employee, and
  • is relevant to the time period of the absence.

The employer does not have an unconditional right to full disclosure of the employee's medical situation. Some disability-related absences may not require medical documentation. For instance, short or infrequent absences will likely only require minimal medical information.

There are very limited circumstances when an employer is entitled to a diagnosis.

What information can an employer request when an employee wants to return to work after a medical absence or needs accommodation at work?

Accommodation means making changes to certain rules, standards, policies, workplace cultures and physical environments to ensure that they don't have a negative effect on a person because of the person's mental or physical disability or any other protected ground. For more information on accommodation, see the Commission interpretive bulletin Duty to accommodate.

When an employee is returning to work after a medical absence, the employer may request that the employee's doctor confirm in writing that the employee is fit to return to work and what, if any, accommodation is needed. Ultimately an employer must accommodate the employee unless such accommodation creates undue hardship for the employer. An employee who is requesting accommodation at work may need to supply additional information to help the employer and employee decide:
  • what duties are available that the employee is able to perform;
  • what accommodations are necessary; and
  • whether the accommodations are possible without creating undue hardship on the employer; and
  • whether a treatment or medication the employee is taking will affect the employee's ability to perform job duties in a satisfactory and safe manner. 

An employee may be asked to provide information such as the following so that the employer can determine what accommodations are necessary:

  • whether the illness or injury is permanent or temporary;

  • what restrictions and limitations an employee has; and

  • whether a treatment or medication the employee is taking will affect the employee's ability to perform job duties.

The employee, the employer, and the union, if there is one, have a duty to cooperate in the accommodation process. An employee cannot refuse a reasonable solution just because they prefer a different kind of accommodation.

What are the rights and responsibilities of the employee in providing medical information?

Privacy and confidentiality
Employees have a right to privacy regarding their personal medical information. The employee must work with the employer to keep the lines of communication and cooperation open. Therefore the employee has a responsibility to cooperate in the process by providing the medical information necessary to explain an absence or support an accommodation request.

Generally, an employee has the right to refuse to disclose medical information such as the diagnosis of their disability. Only in certain situations, depending on the specific facts, is disclosure of a diagnosis and other medical information such as treatment information necessary for the accommodation process.

An employee generally has a right to confidentiality regarding their medical information within the workplace. The sharing of confidential medical information in the workplace is limited to those who need to know for specific purposes, such as arranging modified work.

Contact with the employer
An employee is usually expected to report an absence from work as soon as possible and, if at all possible, before they are expected to show up for work. If requested, an employee is expected to make every reasonable attempt to get a medical note to explain the absence. An employee can expect some contact from the employer during a lengthy absence, but not so much that the employee feels harassed.

Medical information from the employee's own doctor versus a specialist
The employee usually supplies medical information from their own doctor as to whether they are fit to work or require an accommodation at work. In complex medical situations, where the employer requires more detailed information, the employee could suggest:

  • getting further information from their family doctor;
  • asking their family doctor to refer the employee to a specialist of their choice (the decision to refer is at the discretion of the family doctor);
  • getting a consultation between an employee's doctor and a doctor chosen by the employer; or
  • choosing a specialist that the employee and employer agree upon to conduct an independent medical examination (IME) when there is a difference of opinion between specialists, and an IME is required.

Conflicting medical information
Conflicting medical opinions between a family doctor and a specialist, between two specialists, or between a WCB doctor and an independent doctor are common. Usually the opinion of an independent specialist who practises in the area of the employee's disability will be accepted over the opinion of a family doctor.

If two specialists give conflicting information, it may be necessary to choose another specialist whom the employee and employer agree upon to resolve the conflict.

Can a medical absence be a reason for discipline or termination?

When a disability is one of the reasons for discipline or potential termination, the employer must take medical notes and other information about an employee's disability into consideration. An employee who feels that they are being terminated or disciplined for a disability-related absence should provide the employer with medical information to support their claim. An employee who has not revealed a mental health issue or addiction problem that is affecting their ability to work should seek help from a doctor or addictions expert and provide information about their disability to the employer as soon as possible.

For more information

  1. The Commission interpretive bulletin Obtaining and responding to medical information in the workplace offers a full discussion of this topic as it relates to employees, unions, employers and doctors.

  2. Employees may want to use the Commission's Sample Medical Absence Form and Sample Medical Ability to Work Form when seeking medical information from their doctor.

  3. The Commission's interpretive bulletin Duty to Accommodate provides more information on accommodation and undue hardship.

  4. See your collective agreement, if one exists. Labour law cases and related legislation govern the kind of medical information that can be requested in the context of a collective agreement. Human rights law applies to a collective agreement even if it is not mentioned within the agreement itself.

Please note: A complaint must be made to the Alberta Human Rights Commission within one year after the alleged incident of discrimination. The one-year period starts the day after the date on which the incident occurred. For help calculating the one-year period, contact the Commission. 

The website links in this publication are provided as a service and were accurate at the time of publication. The Commission is not responsible for content of websites other than its own. If you have questions about website links or their content, please contact the administrator of the website in question.

October 2009

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