Which mechanisms can/should a university set-up in order to implement short medical leaves of absence of their faculty members? Has the situation in academia become worse or has it always been like this?

It seems to me that when a faculty member gets a "medical leave" for a short period (i.e. from half a day to one week),

  • the workload corresponding to such period is merely postponed (classes to teach, exams to mark, research articles to write, thesis of students from other professor to evaluate, peer-review duties), not removed; and
  • the expectations in term of "academic productivity" (e.g. number of publications per year, number of students guided, number of thesis reviewed, etc.) are in no way reduced.

ADDED FOR CLARITY It seems to me that a factory worker is not expected to "work double" to compensate for their absence during their medical leave when they come back to the assembly line, while faculty members are partially expected to do so. Faculty members benefit from many advantages which compensate for such difference, but the application of industrial managerial techniques to academia (e.g. in Chile) is progressively reducing such advantages.

This is an issue, as if n days of medical leave of absence (e.g. for mental health issue) are followed by n days of double workload, there is a strong incentive to continue to work during one medical leave of absence (which is illegal, as the salary is paid by the insurance company rather than the institution, resulting in free work for the institution!).

More generally, medical leaves of absence do not affect external factors such as deadlines to submit to conference or for guided students to submit their final manuscript, resulting in additional pressures (from the faculty members themselves, but sometimes from their colleague or even from their hierarchy!) to work while on medical leave: in a previous academic employment, the post-graduate coordinator asked me to finish reviewing a Master's thesis while I was under perfusion at the hospital (and on medical leave).

My impression is that

  1. When there was less pressure on faculty members to be "productive", work was just not done when a faculty member was on short medical leave, and the academic system "absorbed" the loss, taking care only of longer medical leaves (e.g. one month, one semester or longer);
  2. Formal medical leaves of absence were invented in the context of workers producing physical goods, where one factory worker is easily replaced by another, and a reduction of the workforce by a small factor only yields a reduction of the productivity by the same factor (as opposed to a break in the production line), and are ill-adapted to "creative" jobs, where the production is no so easy to measure, and where workers are not so easy to replace on short notice (e.g. it's not like any professor can teach any course), such as (among other) in Academia.

I doubt that the hypothesis beyond those "impressions" can be demonstrated formally, and even if they could, I doubt that the administration would take them into account and "lower" the productivity expectations on faculty members. I wonder if I am imagining a worsening trend, and if I am not about which mechanisms can or could be implemented in order to better implement medical leaves of absences of faculty members in academia.

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    This issue is not solely found in academia. What I have seen is everyone else steps up and covers what needs to be done during the leave of absence, and is not just pushed off until later. But that is merely my observations in my workplace.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 16 at 13:25
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    How much research really does not get done because of a half day to one week leave of absence? If your yearly target is 3 papers, you can't very well reduce this to 2.9 papers because you were off sick for one week. Realistically, some reasonable expectations of such medical issues should already be baked into any expectations of yearly paper output. Of course, as you write, longer medical issues need to be treated differently. Commented May 16 at 13:44
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    Country? At least in the US, short-term illnesses (less than a week, are often unpaid unless you have paid sick time, which is built into your salary. Short-term disability insurance sometimes doesn't start until after a week or more absence. While paid by the state or country, where do you think that money comes from? Mine is funded via a deduction from my salary and from payments from my company (and others).
    – mkennedy
    Commented May 16 at 14:20
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    @mkennedy I am working in Chile, for a private university, and there is no real tenure (the interval at which you are evaluated increases as you climbs the hierarchy, but the continuation of your contract depends of such evaluation). But I am curious about general solutions, not just for private universities in Chile!
    – J..y B..y
    Commented May 16 at 15:28

1 Answer 1


As far as "academic productivity", the scenario that would seem to matter most in systems I am familiar with would be someone on the "tenure clock", with an evaluation after a fixed period that determines whether tenure is granted or not. There may be other promotion clocks but tenure is the important one. In a different system my response may not be applicable.

If a medical leave is sufficiently short, I don't think it's sufficiently influential to do anything. For a week, say, on the scale of a typical tenure clock, it's just not going to be a primary influencing factor over that time scale. I would feel comfortable asserting that many nagging chronic issues that do not cause any official "missed time" would be far more influential, even something like the chronic stress of an ill parent is going to add up to much more than a missed week even without any actual caretaking role.

For longer absences, I think the simplest tool for departments is to move the clock. Delaying a tenure evaluation (or, equivalently, "suspending" the tenure clock) by, say, 6 months is a straightforward way to account for 6 months of missed time. Here's an example of what such a policy might look like:

...adjustment of the probationary period can be made in the following conditions, “when those circumstances significantly impede the faculty member’s progress toward achieving tenure”:

  • “responsibilities with respect to childbirth or adoption”

  • “significant responsibilities with respect to elder or dependent care obligations”

  • “disability or chronic illness,” or

  • “circumstances beyond the control of the faculty member.”

For teaching workload, I would expect that to be handled separately. In my experience, again, short absences are relatively easy to deal with. There may be specific policies or it may be mostly up to the faculty member. I'm familiar with cases where a class or week of classes is simply cancelled, with the instructor doing their best to impact the course as little as possible though acknowledging that it's likely that something will be missing. Other alternatives are to have someone fill-in, either keeping the same class objectives and material or having someone act as a "guest speaker" to lecture/present on a topic close to their own expertise.

For longer absences, it may be necessary to designate an official substitute. Most often I would expect this to be from an existing employee rather than a new hire, but case of a longer absence it may be necessary to hire a temporary employee or change someone's responsibilities. I would expect these longer absences to mostly be handled at the department level and for them to rely a lot on the soft power of the chair, if it's not possible for the instructor to make their own arrangements.

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    Beyond tenure evaluation issues, my point is that postponing tasks (e.g. marking exams, reviewing a PhD thesis for a committee, etc.) to after the return from a medical leave is not reducing the total workload (in the month,semester,year), it is just reducing the amount of time available to accomplish such tasks, and thus increasing pressure. It seems to me that a factory worker is not expected to "work double" to compensate for their absence during their medical leave when they come back to the assembly line, while faculty members are. I will try to clarify my point in the question.
    – J..y B..y
    Commented May 16 at 15:41
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    @J..yB..y This is true of every salary-type position, nothing special to academia.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 16 at 15:49
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    I might be true for some other administrative jobs (albeit I would argue that people are easier to replace than faculty members), but how is it true of a factory worker on the assembly line, of the receptionist of a building, a sales-person in a shop, a cashier at the super market, and many other salary-type positions?
    – J..y B..y
    Commented May 16 at 15:52
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    @J..yB..y Those are all hourly rather than salary jobs in my experience (in this US; this distinction may be very different elsewhere), where an hourly job is something where you are paid for the time working and work exactly for that time on whatever work there is to do, whereas a salary job is paying for your overall intellectual input over a period of time (like a year). For a professor, in particular, a big chunk of the job is also deciding what exactly to work on during their working hours, rather than being assigned explicit tasks to perform.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 16 at 16:15

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