What I Learned From Taking Extended Time off and Short Term Disability

Just about 8 weeks ago, as many people may know, I went in for surgery to repair my left distal bicep tendon. Back in 2022, I was lifting a sheet of plywood in Lowes and ended up with a “high grade partial tear”. I won’t go into the mess that followed of “just let it heal”, but suffice to say it didn’t heal right and I found a better surgeon that said it should have been repaired. What I want to talk about in this post is a few things that really made a difference in the recovery process, primarily taking REAL time away from work and not feeling guilty about it.

I am just going to say this first. Your health is something you control and nobody else will advocate for you but you. That being said In January of this year when we finally got the procedure on the books, The first thing I did was understand post operative recovery process. In short this was the outline from the Doctor

  • ~3 Weeks in a full splint completely immobilized
  • ~4 Weeks in a mechanical brace that would be adjusted 10 degrees of extension weekly
  • ~2 follow-up visits to remove the splint, fit the brace, and evaluate the overall progress to remove the brace.

I knew going into this that the recovery was going to be about 6-7 weeks.  What I didn’t know was for some nights I’d be sleeping in a chair, even most nights when I could sleep in bed it was restless, well because my arm had a splint or brace on it and you can’t roll over.

Also I discussed with the surgeon (who is a very progressive guy that reads journals and even engineers his own equipment), what the effect of stress could have on the healing process. He honestly and very openly said, “Stress could double the body’s time to heal. If you can live stress free you will recover much faster.” Right then and there I made my decision to take 7 weeks off, but how would that work? For those that don’t know it’s leveraging your FMLA and Short Term Disability benefits at work if you have them.

FMLA vs Short Term Disability

The first thing I learned is these are NOT the same.  In fact you can file for one or the other or both.  Family and Medical Leave(FMLA) is the federal program that allows up to 12 weeks a year of UNPAID leave for various reasons.  This allows for some “protection” while you are out of work.

Short Term Disability (STD) is a benefit that pays you while you are out of work for qualifying reasons. Every plan is different, but some may provide different payments for the first 8 weeks, and then lower amounts past that up to 20+ weeks. However you have to read you plan as STD has a maximum amount of time before it would convert to Long Term Disability.

These plans are also usually managed by a third party company, so you have to read your company’s documentation completely and follow the process to the letter.

In my case I filed for SHort Term Disability and FMLA was automatically added on to run concurrently. Therefore I had the benefit of being paid while under medical leave. The surgery plus the recovery qualified me for BOTH. The bottom line was I was ready to go out for seven weeks and continue to have money to pay my bills. So then what?

Something to Know About Short Term Disability

This may be different plan by plan and company by company, but I suspect not too much. Something I found out was that when you are on STD, you are NOT officially on the payroll. Most companies will disable your access to email and other systems, which is a GOOD thing.

However, because you are not on payroll while you are out, you and the company are not able to pay into your benefits like insurance, HSA, 401k, etc for that time. Now, they are not revoked everything stays active so you can have insurance for example. The kicker is when you return to work, just be mindful that the first payroll check will deduct all those contributions s at once.

In my case I missed two payroll cycles so upon return I had 3X the deductions all at once. One normal set of deductions for the current cycle and the TWO missed cycles. It’s not that big a deal but that first paycheck on return will not be the take home you may have expected that’s all.

Time Off Worked but…

It was not easy to remain completely stress free.  I can tell you that while the STD company initial qualified the seven week request, the day of surgery when it was “approved” they changed it to FOUR weeks.  There is a LinkedIN post about these challenges I had dealing with this, the timing of getting an extension, and going back and forth with them and HR for almost a week. 

It was eventually sorted out but bear in mind that while the process “started out” very smooth and easy that change, and the poor communication from the case worker didn’t help things.  Just remember….nobody will advocate for you but you!

I can say that at the 7 week post operative eval, the doctor was very happy.  I was well ahead of where I should be even compared to some athletes he’s done the procedure on.  He remembered that I took the time off and told me again that was a BIG help to the body’s process.

So now I started the Physical Therapy phase which is another 6-8 weeks. I am back to work and, yes I am already feeling the stress, but the healing is far along. However, I have to do both Physical and Occupational therapy. Each of them is two times per week, at different providers, and not necessarily on the same day. I’ve been up front with folks as I returned and most of them understand that I will have time blocks I am not available, or a meeting I accepted may get declined if that’s the only time I can get therapy. Where am I going with this?

There is NO Guilty Feeling

Something a few people asked me about privately was if I “felt guilty” about being away or continuing to take time here and there for therapy visits. If you know me you will guess what my answer was without thinking…….FUCK NO I didn’t feel guilty nor will I while I am in therapy. Why should I? The time off was a BENEFIT afforded to me so I used it. Do you feel guilty for taking an HSA or 401k match? I think not so using your disability benefit is no different.

I think there is a stigma around it because there are people that abuse it, but I didn’t. If you have a legitimate reason to use it….then do so. When it comes to the remaining rehabilitation therapy, that is an hour a day and can be worked around but I have to be offline to do it. This is not a surprise for any surgery but extending the disability just for that, in my opinion, was not worth it and probably would have not been approved anyhow. Therefore people just need to understand it has to be worked around plain and simple.

I will end how I started and say your health is your responsibility alone and nobody will advocate for you but you. do your research, leverage your benefits, and make decisions that will help YOU recover.

About Chris Colotti

Chris is active on the VMUG and event speaking circuit and is available for many events if you want to reach out and ask. Previously to this he spent close to a decade working for VMware as a Principal Architect. Previous to his nine plus years at VMware, Chris was a System Administrator that evolved his career into a data center architect. Chris spends a lot of time mentoring co-workers and friends on the benefits of personal growth and professional development. Chris is also amongst the first VMware Certified Design Experts (VCDX#37), and author of multiple white papers. In his spare time he helps his wife Julie run her promotional products as the accountant, book keeper, and IT Support. Chris also believes in both a healthy body and healthy mind, and has become heavily involved with fitness as a Diamond Team Beachbody Coach using P90X and other Beachbody Programs. Although Technology is his day job, Chris is passionate about fitness after losing 60 pounds himself in the last few years.


  1. This might make you feel better…

    My left hip has been bothering me for years. I finally made Kaiser take an X-ray to find out why. The X-ray confirmed arthritis and was told that I need to have hip replaced!! I was shocked since it went from here’s some Advil and given some exercises to “help” that pain to you need to have the left one replaced now and the right one done “soon”. I’m 50 years old and in pretty good health so I was shocked. I informed my boss and HR department. Boss told me let me know the surgery date and my HR department sent me a bunch of of documents and a 800 for our 3rd party HR benefits info, they call it the Associate’s Service Center. Anyway my boss continued to work me (was doing serving on a pool deck walking 20+ miles a day). Since I couldn’t get a surgery date from Kaiser I thought I had no other choice but to keep going (I needed my insurance to pay for this surgery). Finally 10 months later I got a date. Then I was informed of FMLA I had zero idea I could do this! No one told me anything. My HR department was basically non existent, there’s an office but no one was in there: I completed the FMLA paperwork but keep being denied “because of dates” I didn’t understand and no one was willing to explain it to me. Up until the day before my surgery I was told my FMLA was denied. I couldn’t handle it anymore I needed my surgery and I knew the stress over this was already killing me and wouldn’t be good for my recovery, so I tried to let it go and focus on me. The surgery went great, recovery went great and I was back to work in 3 months. I had to pay extra
    $ weekly to keep my benefits and I was receiving TDI thankfully. Now skip 6 months later…it’s open enrollment and it dawns on my that all these years I’ve been paying into Short Term and Long Term Disability THE BUY PLAN TOO for years and I never received a dime. I also realize I didn’t receive a copy of my policy for that year either. Why didn’t anyone tell me?? Not my HR department not the ASC, not my boss!! I can’t believe it, I worked for years in extreme pain and even after being told I have to have my hip replaced that I work another 10 months on!! I’m treated like shit by guests, boss works me on the pool deck, on over time and the whole time I’m in excruciating pain!!! And this is the kicker…I thought maybe I was missing out on $1500/week but then if you minus TDI is wasn’t going to add up. NOPE, I should have received $3,461/week!!! That’s huge for me (single mom, zero help and I’m a waitress working on a bad hip)…I’m still waiting to get the other hip replaced, however it’s not quite “bone on bone” so until then….

    I’m out approx $75K (which is way more than I make in a year)!! I can’t fucking believe this shit!!! So ya apparently I really should have don more research and you are completely correct, you are your own advocate!!

    • Lara, it certainly does not make me feel better, I am so sorry that you did not know the things you could take advantage of that was there like STD and LTD. I am quite sure companies know they have it, they offer it at open enrollment, BUT they rarely EXPLAIN it. I did a lot of investigation myself for sure and that saved me. I did learn FMLA and STD are NOT the same thing on my plan at least. FMLA is unpaid and unless you file for BOTH then they actually combined FLMA/STD as filed together. It really is amazing how complicated this can be and I only hope people can learn from what I have. If it helps one person going forward then it was worth it to post it.

      I could almost write a book about the process (it would be short enough to make it easy), but still it’s something people don’t really understand and HR departments either don’t know themselves, or are not willing to explain it.

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