For years I have been helping employees and employers manage through employee medical leaves. Sometimes, you can foresee the need for a leave and have open discussions with your employee before their leave begins. More often it is an unforeseen announcement leaving both the employee and employer in a difficult spot. While you will find guidance on employer/employee obligations regarding medical leave in your local employment legislation, there are a few things employers can do to help manage through these tough times and ensure a valuable employee has a happy, healthy, and productive return to the workplace. I am so fortunate that TPD® Workforce & HR Solutions has provided me tremendous support and hope our learnings can help you should you find yourself in a similar situation.
1) Have clear and reasonable expectations before the leave begins. If you have been given the gift of notice in advance of a leave, discuss expectations with your employee on the knowledge sharing/training or documentation they can provide before their leave begins. Your employee may have reduced energy, mental distress, ongoing medical appointments and personal needs leaving them with reduced capacity. Being on the same page regarding deliverables will ensure both you and the employee know where things stand and what needs to be handled in their absence.
Note: Unfortunately, there are situations where no lead time can be given by the employee and their leave will be immediate. In this situation, it is best to rally colleagues together to provide business continuity during the medical leave. It will not be perfect, however a bit of encouragement and recognition that everyone is doing their best during a difficult time will go a long way with your team.
2) Set up a communication plan. Employees on leave will have different expectations regarding communication while they are away from work. Some will want to cut off communication completely in order to focus on their health. Others will crave the contact with their team and would love to hear from you with updates. If you are not sure of their preference, simply ask! While you cannot demand that the employee stay in touch, it is certainly appropriate to offer them casual touch points. If it is too time consuming for a single Manager to maintain ongoing meetings (after all, they are likely picking up some of the absent employee's workload) create a communication plan that includes reach-outs from HR, colleagues, and other members of your leadership. The more your team shows the employee that they care, the better the employee will feel about their eventual return.
Note: If your employee has volunteered the details of their circumstances it is often helpful to ask another employee who has experienced the same issue to reach out to them. Conversations with someone who has been in their shoes will provide the employee with a vision of a successful return to work and possibly an outlet to discuss their circumstances if they feel comfortable.
3) What is your short term disability plan? Depending on the size and scope of your organization, you may or may not have a short term disability plan. Many employers have long term disability plans, however, plans often do not begin until 90 to 120 days after the employee leave has begun. With so many employees living paycheque to paycheque, it may not be feasible for them to be without income during this time. Investigate what financial supports you may be able to put in place to assist an employee during a time where financial stress may exacerbate their health issue.
4) Let them know you are thinking about them. Your employee on leave is having a hard time and sending a card or a small gift to let them know that you are thinking about them will mean a lot. Even if your employee is not keen to stay in regular contact, they do not want to be forgotten. Let them know you care through a gesture that fits your budget. Here are a few suggestions:
- A card and/or flowers signed by their team as well as leadership
- Gift certificates for food delivery or house cleaning
- Subscriptions to streaming services or wellness apps
- A massage/spa service
5) Paid benefit premiums. Whether you are an employer who pays for 100% of benefit premiums or has a co-pay model, evaluate whether you can maintain the employer-paid cost while employees are on leave. It is a difficult time for the employee to bear the increased cost of health insurance/benefits while they are focusing on their health at a reduced income. This gesture, even for a defined time period, will be very meaningful to your employee
6) Remember, they are still your employee! Depending on your governing employment legislation, an employee on medical leave maintains the same rights as an "active" employee. This means that your employee on leave maintains their tenure as it relates to vacation pay increases and other tenure-based compensation and benefit increases. Be sure to review their salary alongside the rest of the organization. Though you cannot demand their attendance, include them in invitations to company events even if you suspect they will decline. They will appreciate being included. These efforts maintain your employees' sense of belonging and attachment to you as their employer.
7) Be prepared for things to be different. Your employee has been through a tough time. Perhaps even a life changing experience. It may not be possible for them to return to the same hours of work or even to the same role. Their return may accompany instructions from a medical professional on modifications to their duties, reduced or gradually increasing hours, remote work, or travel limitations. Most often, the employer will have a legal duty to accommodate requests such as these and it is advisable to keep an open mind as to how best to leverage the strengths of the employee in these new circumstances.
8) Keep things equitable. Note that this tip is to keep things "equitable" not "equal". Each employee's circumstances will be different and so what is requested or required for one employee may not suit the needs of another. Aside from adhering to your local employment and human rights legislations, ensure that you approach each situation from the perspective of what you are able to do to provide the employee with the time and resources required to tend to their health and to have a successful return.
Do you have other tips that have worked for you? I'd love to see them in the comments below.
If you find yourself in need of support to manage an employee medical leave or other complex HR issue, please reach out to TPD® Workforce & HR Solutions at email@example.com. We'd be happy to help!