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Returning to Work after a Diagnosis of Sepsis

Learn more about whether sepsis can be a disability and what accommodations might be helpful

From the desk of Beth Loy, Ph.D., Principal Consultant


Sepsis is a condition we don’t discuss much, but there are more than one million cases diagnosed each year. Sepsis is a blood infection. The body’s immune response to the infection causes chemicals to be released that result in inflammation. This response can cause organ damage or even failure.

For about 50% of all people diagnosed with sepsis, the condition is fatal. The number of cases has soared due to an increase in the number of seniors, antibiotic resistance, and the survival rates of individuals with low immunity.

With such a somber outcome, it’s sometimes unimaginable to think that those who have survived sepsis are able to return to work. However, they do, and often they need accommodations to do so. Sepsis is such a substantial condition that it more than likely meets the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). Every situation is different, so let’s look at that definition.

The definition of disability is an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. So when determining whether an employee with sepsis has a disability, you need to know:

  1. Does the employee have an impairment? If yes,
  2. Does the impairment affect a major life activity? If yes,
  3. Does the impairment substantially limit the major life activity? Consider:

More than likely, an individual who has sepsis is going to be protected under the ADA. So, what accommodations might be needed? Leave is the most common request when someone is diagnosed with sepsis. Dealing with the condition can result in long hospital stays, and it can take a great deal of time to return to work. Once an employee does return to work, the individual may need flexible scheduling, telework, and a reduced schedule while continuing to recover. Again, it takes time to work back up to a full-time schedule.

Max, for example, was a caller to JAN who needed accommodations as he transitioned back to work. He was dealing with migraines and heat sensitivity, which were caused by the treatment for his sepsis. Max was an accountant so he was able to do some work remotely. His employer added task lighting and a dimmer switch to his office to help with his migraines when he was in the office. Max was also given a fan and flexibility in his schedule during extreme heat. After six months of flexibility, he returned to full productivity.

With a sepsis diagnosis, it’s important to realize that limitations are going to be very individual; depending on how the condition affects the body, limitations could be different. The treatment for sepsis can also cause limitations. A resource to help determine additional accommodations is JAN’s A to Z.

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