my recovery from an accident is impacting my work performance

A reader writes:

I was in an accident over a month ago. I didn’t realize how badly I was hurt until the next day. I only missed a day and a half of work because I had a weekend to recover, but I honestly wish I had taken better care of myself and missed more.

I’m still going to physical therapy and other accident-related appointments almost every day to help myself recover. But for the last month, I kind of feel like I’ve been dropping the ball at work. I’m in low to severe pain every day at work but I have a pretty good attitude about it and I don’t know if my coworkers or boss realize how much pain I’m working through. I’ve let them see me taking pain pills so they at least have some understanding, and I’ve let my boss know that I’m still going to appointments daily.

I’m getting back to normal, but I still have trouble performing a few of my responsibilities at 100%. I’m also just plain distracted and making a poor employee. Every day, it feels like something related to the accident is bothering me: insurance issues, personal issues resulting from the accident, pain, doctor’s appointments.

I’m really trying my hardest but I’m afraid because I “look” so much better to everyone that my boss and coworkers might think I’m slacking. I know I’m getting up to take small breaks too often — but I get to be in so much pain from sitting still.

I don’t know how much longer recovery is going to take — another month?

In the meantime, can I do anything to help my boss understand that I’m not a poor employee — that this isn’t permanent? I’m fairly new to my job — less than a year — and don’t want to make such a terrible impression.

Should I get a doctor’s note and give it to HR — something to let them know I’m still experiencing pain and having trouble lifting and moving things?

Talk to your boss right away! Most managers would be sympathetic to this, but they can’t accommodate you if they don’t know there’s a need.

Also, acknowledging to your boss that you know the situation is affecting your performance will mitigate any worries that she might have that something else is going on, and giving her a rough timeline for how long it’s likely to last will mitigate any worries that this is just your new performance level forever.

Say something like this: “I want to talk to you about some medical issues that I’m still having stemming from the accident. I’m still in a great deal of pain, and I’m still having trouble performing all of my responsibilities at 100%, particularly moving and lifting things. I’ve talked to my doctor about how long the recovery should take, and we think it will be about another month before I’m operating the way I was before. I’m bringing this up because I don’t want you wondering what’s going on or how long it might last; I want you in the loop on the situation. I’d also be glad to get a doctor’s note if that’s something that would be helpful.”

If there are specific accommodations you’d like (such as not having to move or lift things for the time being), say that too.

Most managers are going to be pretty understanding about this. But you have to speak up.

I hope you feel better soon!

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. Laura*

    Make sure your doctor is on board with whatever note you want to give before you offer it! A reasonable doc should be, but not all are reasonable. I had/ve a medical condition that escalated to the point that I needed ADA accommodation. My doc (at the time — this was the final straw that led to me firing him) refused to sign a note for my office, though he was willing to sign an application for a handicapped parking pass that said exactly the same thing (I ended up giving that one to work, too). Still have no idea what his issue with a note for my office was.

  2. Kat*

    In terms of accomodations, you could ask if it’s possible to get a standing desk. There are ones out there that are adjustable, so you could go from sitting to standing as you needed while still being able to get work done.

  3. The Other Dawn*

    I agree with Alison. Please talk to your manager as soon as possible. Simply letting them see you taking pills isn’t going to magically make people understand that you’re in pain and need to recover more fully. Those pills could be vitamins, or you might have a headache.

    I’ll never understand why employees don’t speak up when something happens and they have to leave early, go to appointments, etc. Often I’m left thinking the employee is slacking off when actually she’s got family issues going on or illness or whatever. It’s very frustrating. I don’t need all the gory details, but a heads-up would be nice.

    1. fposte*

      Totally agreed. OP, people see others taking medication, even pain medication, fairly frequently, and their seeing that has nothing to do with understanding that you’re currently working at less than optimal efficiency. Tell them. Unless you tell them, you have to assume they know nothing.

      Kat’s suggestion about the standing desk is a good possibility–think also if there are other things that might help your performance and comfort and that might be fairly simple to accommodate. Are there some tasks that you really need to be fresher for, and can you do those more in the morning and save more rote stuff to when your concentration isn’t as good, for instance?

      And best wishes on your recovery. It’s so hard not to be where you want to be healthwise, but things will eventually improve.

      1. C4T!!!*

        Good employees want to feel trusted by their managers giving them the benefit of the doubt that they can do the job.

        And yet, so few employees will do the same for their managers but instead running to HR when something comes up. For me, it’s like calling a marriage councelor to have them ask your spouse their opinion on what to do for dinner.

        Your manager wants to feel trusted just as much as you do. You show them you trust them when you talk to them about things that REALLY matter. Oh yeah… and just order a pizza. ;-)

    2. Rob Aught*

      “I’ll never understand why employees don’t speak up when something happens and they have to leave early, go to appointments, etc. Often I’m left thinking the employee is slacking off when actually she’s got family issues going on or illness or whatever. It’s very frustrating. I don’t need all the gory details, but a heads-up would be nice.”

      Embarrassment, maybe?

      Managers operate better when they have information. Knowing this is a temporary situation will help them mitigate the issue and gives them a timeline of when they can expect your situation to get better. There may even be something they can do to help!

      All I really need to know is “I have a medical condition that may affecting my work performance. It is manageable and I should fully recover in about a month.” Some people might need more detail, but I don’t really see why. Most can operate with that and the next step is to discuss what your needs are until recovery.

      Even if it is not that easy, you still need to speak up. Suffering in silence is not a virtue.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        It could be embarrassment and that’s understandable, but there comes a point when one has to speak up or risk disciplinary action. Sometimes I think it’s because the employee feels it’s none of the manager’s business. Maybe it’s no one’s business, but I’m not asking for a play-by-play. Just something general, how it will affect her work, and an estimate as to when it might be resolved. That’s it.

        1. VintageLydia*

          I’m going to take a shot in the dark and say it might be because most people’s first employment ever is in retail/food service, where even temporary, perfectly excusable and understandable productivity issues can trigger disciplinary action or termination. Hiding anything remotely wrong with you or your situation is a hard habit to break.

          This isn’t the case always. I’ve had reasonable and accommodating retail managers, and still friends with a few, but they seem rarer in those industries.

          1. Jessa*

            I’m with Lydia on this. A lot of employees have been trained that it’s NOT okay to ask for time off, or to admit a problem. Like she says that’s mostly call centre, fast food, etc. type of jobs. But even some pretty nice white collar places are horrible about things like this.

            In this case it’s due to an accident and something utterly not the OPs fault at all. I would definitely sit down with the doctor and then with your boss.

            Also depending on what type of accident (if it was car or something where there is insurance involved,) if you need time off you can often get that reimbursed from the insurance of the other guy if you were not at fault.

            Either way even if the boss is not a sympathetic type I’d tell them, because it reflects better on you that you’re aware than if you’re not and they just think you’re slacking.

            1. TheBurg*

              Yep, there are some bosses/managers (probably in every field) that don’t seem to understand people getting sick or injured and needing accommodation or time off work. It’s not the majority, probably, but having even one job like this can make you squeamish about bringing the subject up.

          2. fposte*

            I’d also say that it’s pretty much a standard human move in all kinds of relationships–parental, romantic, professional–to avoid saying something and hope people pick up on clues.

        2. Y*

          The problem is that some situations will never be resolved. I have rheumatoid arthritis, so there are days and weeks where I will be in pain and operate at 80 percent capacity or something like that. Life for me might be like that forever. Maybe it will get worse, I don’t know. Telling a manager about chronic illnesses is something people should think hard about before doing it, because you can’t take it back.

          1. Cait*

            I have fibromyalgia and have been thinking about writing to AAM on this very subject. I constantly wrestle with the questions of who to tell, when to tell them, how much to tell them, etc. I don’t want to be seen as someone who makes excuses or doesn’t do her share, so I have a bad habit of running myself into the ground to overcompensate.

  4. Shoshie*

    I totally hear this. I’m two months pregnant and dealing with pretty awful, all-day “morning” sickness. I had to tell my boss right away because I work in a chemistry lab and wanted to move to desk work for the first trimester, but I’m so glad that he’s on board and knows why my efficiency has dropped. I’m working as hard as I can at the moment, but it’s really difficult when you feel like death all the time.

  5. Ornery PR*

    OP, boy can I sympathize! I totally agree with AAM, you should speak to your boss right away. I completely understand the compulsion to not let everyone see what pain you’re going through. But if your boss is at all human, she will sympathize. And the sooner you tell her the better. If she starts to notice your performance slipping, and then finds out that it’s related to your accident, she could wrongly assume that you’re just using the accident as an excuse for being a poor employee, since you don’t have a long history of working there and her believing otherwise.

    Last month I had a terrible back episode/flare up (I have a couple herniated disks and other back issues). This has happened a few times in the last couple years, but this time it happened at work. My bosses were very sympathetic and have been really accommodating with appointments and everything related. Since I’m only 30 and in good shape otherwise, I don’t think they realized how severe the issue was until they saw the worst of it happen in front of them.

    I understand wanting to power through, act tough and appear as though everything is fine. But owning your weaknesses and showing your bosses that you are mature enough to know your boundaries will go a long way to earning their trust. Plus, it sounds like you are still dedicated to doing a good job despite your pain. Talk to your boss. Good luck OP!!!

  6. Ashley*

    I was in the same situation last year. I only took about two days total off (2 were half days) after the accident, but I should have taken more. Don’t push yourself. Often accidents can take months (I’m taking anywhere from 3-12) to clear up the injuries, and you shouldn’t push yourself. If it’s too painful to sit, take a break. You have to take care of yourself first and you can’t feel bad about it.

    Luckily my boss was understanding, but you have to remember that you can always find another job, but you can’t get another body. And if you don’t take care of the injuries now and push yourself too hard, you’ll only create more problems later on down the line. Plus, stress can often aggravate injuries, and it sounds like you’re stressing yourself out! Talk to your boss immediately!!

  7. Sarah*

    Hey OP – I’m there with you. I was an an accident – hit by a car while in a crosswalk. I didn’t know how bad it was until 2 days after the accident. It took almost 7 months for me to have surgery (thanks Workers Comp) during which I was taking pain pills and going to physical therapy 3 times a week. After surgery, I took a month of unpaid leave to rehab. It’s been almost 2 years since the accident and I’m still in pain. So definitely talk with your boss because you never know how long this will last (for me, I am told that it will never get better and I will be a hip replacement by the time I’m 50).

    1. Jessa*

      This happens a lot, because the adrenaline etc. kicks in and for the first few days you feel way better than you ultimately will.

  8. OP*

    How would you overcome the feeling of guilt? I feel as if I’m making excuses for work that I should be doing better. It doesn’t help that we’re right in the heart of our busiest time for the next month.

    I know that I feel awful a lot of the time… but it’s hard to say: “I’m working slower because I have to move around often or get distracted by pain.” I feel guilty for saying something like this -I didn’t break anything – I just had deep bruises.

    1. Rob Aught*

      Pain is pain. I suffer the occasional migraine. No one can “see” me having a migraine and I can fake it for a good part of the day, but sometimes I just have to go home. It sucks and I hate it, but I also stopped feeling guilty about it a long time ago.

      Guilt is not a rational emotion. Your guilt is standing between you and giving your manager important information that will be beneficial to you both. If they are an understanding individual they may even understand your guilt! You have to do the best job you can under the circumstances, but your manager really needs to understand that your performance is impacted beyond your control.

      Give them an opportunity to help you. They can’t help if they don’t know.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      You have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. And if they make you feel that way, do you want to continue to work someplace like that?

      “I know that I feel awful a lot of the time… but it’s hard to say: ‘I’m working slower because I have to move around often or get distracted by pain.’ ”

      There shouldn’t be anything hard about this. You’re relaying information that will help your boss to understand what’s going on. You’re in pain, you’re not 100%, and you’re working a little slower. It isn’t your fault. I repeat, it isn’t your fault. And no sane, reasonable manager is going to fault you for it.

    3. Legal Eagle*

      Your guilt is irrational. It happens to hardworkers who get injured. However, you need to guard your health so that you can heal properly and get back to full capacity. You just need to get past that guilt and address the issue with your manager.

      Telling your manager “I can’t do X well right now because of my accident, but I should be back at full force in a month” is the best thing for you and your co-workers right now. If you don’t take it easy and recover, you will be at a lower capacity for a longer amount of time. That helps no one.

    4. fposte*

      Oh, I so understand and I so want to shake you all in one go :-). If you had a co-worker who’d been in an accident, would you demand that she have broken bones in order to limit her work? Of course not. Can you treat yourself as respectfully and kindly as you’d treat somebody else? And seriously, you’re still under a doctor’s care, because a doctor thinks you need to be, and the doctor isn’t saying that since you don’t have broken bones you should be well already (and soft tissue can take much longer to repair than bones). The doctor knows more than you on this.

      Another advantage of working out some accommodations and modified expectations is that you can feel like you’re succeeding at what you’re appropriately expected to do rather than failing at what you’re inappropriately expected to do. And it will probably help you heal faster as well, which would be good for everybody.

      1. Ashley*

        This! Soft tissue damage can often have more serious and longer term effects than broken bones, it’s just that you can’t see it.

        Tough love, OP, but you just have to stop feeling guilty. STOP IT! :) It’s a completely internal feeling. You just have to get over it.

      2. glennis*

        you can feel like you’re succeeding at what you’re appropriately expected to do rather than failing at what you’re inappropriately expected to do.

        I love this, fposte. Very wise.

      3. Jamie*

        Can you treat yourself as respectfully and kindly as you’d treat somebody else?

        One of the most important life lessons anyone can learn. As yourself this question as often as necessary until you get a yes.

    5. Anonymous*

      A couple thoughts:
      Talk with your medical team about the plan & expectation for recovery. Ask them how common it is for full recovery in that timeframe for folks in your condition. I suggest talking with them about a schedule (time or recovery based) for revisiting issues. Relay *that* piece to your boss, not an expectation that you’ll be “back go normal” by x date.
      Also talk with the team about appropriate accommodations, and ask for them.

      Pain is debilitating. And, people who don’t have as much pain heal faster than those who don’t.

      Soft tissue pain is real. You want all the soft tissue issues fully resolved before you settle with your insurer. Don’t settle for passable with chronic pain issues.

      The only place guilt has in this is in not keeping your manager/HR in the loop enough to work with you on appropriate accommodations & understanding that you are working hard on your recovery.

      Take care of yourself.

    6. Riki*

      Stop feeling guilty. It’s not going to do anything for your pain or your work. Have you ever had a coworker come into work even though they are clearly very ill? They came in because they believed that they “had” to, yet, they can’t get anything done because they are sick and probably medicated to the high heavens just to get through the day.

      Speak to your boss right away. If s/he is human, they will be willing to work something out with you. Perhaps you can work from home on some days, or go on short-term leave so you can focus on on your physical therapy.

    7. Elizabeth*

      I have found that the best way to deal with guilt that I know is irrational is to imagine that someone else is in my shoes. Would I be upset with a coworker if this were happening to her, not me? If the answer’s no, then I go forward reassuring myself that my coworkers probably feel the same.

      You didn’t choose the accident, you didn’t choose the aftermath of pain, and you didn’t choose for it to happen at a busy time. You know that you can usually be more productive than this, and *that itself* is proof that you are experiencing real pain.

    8. Chinook*

      Let me add another voice saying that the feeling of guilt is irrational and that those who are most prone to feel it are often the ones who least need to feel guilty.

      As for it being “only bruises,” it might help to think of bruises as internal bleeding (which they are). And, if you keep irritating the bruise, you will reinjure it. The body takes time, rest and fuel to heal. Do not feel guilty for taking all 3. And remember, just like your career, nobody will care as much about your body as you do.

      1. Another Emily*

        While some bruises are minor, it’s quite possible (as you have now experienced) to have excrutiating bruises. Like many injuries, there is a spectrum of severity such as cuts ranging from thin paper cuts that sting, to painful gashes that need stitches. You have the “gash” equivalent of a bruise, so give yourself a break eh? You’re in enough pain without beating yourself up. :) (I say this as someone who beats herself about stuff sometimes.)

  9. AB*

    “I know that I feel awful a lot of the time… but it’s hard to say: “I’m working slower because I have to move around often or get distracted by pain.” I feel guilty for saying something like this -I didn’t break anything – I just had deep bruises.”

    OP, perhaps it will help if you look at the facts this way:

    1. Talking or not talking to your manager, either way the situation is still impacting your performance. So it would make more sense to feel guilty for not address the issue with your manager, rather than for expressing out loud the reality you are experiencing.

    2. As AAM pointed out, acknowledging to your boss that you know the situation is affecting your performance will mitigate any worries that s/he might be having that this is just your new performance level forever (and that you potentially don’t care because you didn’t raise the issue with him/her). That alone is enough reason to speak up. You may be unable to stop feeling guilty for not being able to perform at your previous level for the time being, but it doesn’t justify avoiding what could be an uncomfortable conversation for you, because that conversation is important to indicate to your manager that you care about your performance, and isn’t oblivious to the impact of the accident on it.

    Best wishes for a quick recovery!

  10. glennis*

    My work history has taken me from working a blue-collar heavy labor job to a desk job. And ironically, I never had an injury during the former – although many co-workers had back injuries, I never did.

    But in my desk job, over the past five years I have had two surgeries, one that affected the part where a person sits down, and the other a gastro-intestinal thing. Because I was so used to physical work, I did not take into consideration the strain my surgeries put on my body, and the physical strain sitting at a desk puts on our bodies.

    For my second surgery, I had an incision in my abdomen, and while it healed, it was very hard to sit up straight throughout an 8 hour day. My doctor told me to take two weeks off, and, thinking myself a hero, I went in to the office after three days. By 2 pm I was in serious pain.

    Fortunately, my boss was something of a hypochondriac, and she recognized my pain and, wisely, told me to pay attention to it. She urged me to take all the time my doctor recommended – and I thank her for that.

    The first surgery – well, I was so embarrassed by it that it was hard to request accommodation. But the pain was so bad I didn’t care – I did not have to be convinced to take time off.

  11. Elizabeth West*

    Definitely talk to your boss. She can’t help you if she doesn’t know what’s going on. I know if I were a boss I would appreciate the update.

    I sympathize; someone ran a red light and smashed up my car on my birthday this week (rawr!). Even though I wasn’t hurt (except for a scraped elbow and a backache), it’s been a very long, tiring week. I called my boss when I got home from the body shop that day and told her what happened, and she said for me to take whatever time I needed to deal.

    I hope you feel better soon, OP.

  12. Anon-na-na*

    OP, I have been where you have been (or at least a relatively similar situation). I was hit head-on by a drunk driver a number of years ago and it put me in physical therapy for months. My job required a lot of lifting, moving, and overall schlepping so it wasn’t easy. My boss was understanding and the staff I worked with were very helpful as I went through the healing process.

    I just want to mention one thing, and I have no idea if it relates to you, but if you don’t have legal representation, I would consider it. My lawyer was a godsend in my situation. She really helped with the insurance, bills, etc and she walked me through the entire process. I developed PTSD as a result of the accident and I went through a period of cognitive therapy and EMDR. This may not be your situation at all, but I figured I’d share my experience. Best wishes to you as you heal and get back to a ‘new normal’.

  13. ProcReg*

    I had an unreasonable manager(s) on an issue like this. Some managers are clueless that your performance is affected by outside, temporary factors.

    I told him that I had some new medicine from the doctor (this is related to a movement/anxiety disorder). I was new to the job AND the medicine. My coworker training me would stand over my shoulder and tell me move by move what to do. I nearly quit right then, because the anxiety was so great (I hadn’t started the correct dosage yet). The movement disorder medicine would lower my blood pressure at random, making me sleepy.

    My brain couldn’t function in that environment. I was asked to leave after six months.

  14. RB*

    Oh please, please tell your manager.

    I had a long time employee who I put on a PIP because of performance issues. 4 weeks into it, she suffered a heart attack. She had been having problems for 6 months and ignored it, telling no one.

    Obviously, I felt horrible about it as it explained every single issue I was having with her. Once she came back from leave and in much improved health, her performance got back to where it needed to be.

    Had she simply told me, I would have accommodated her and so many headaches (including the PIP) could have been avoided.

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