If you’ve ever had an employee take disability leave, then you’ll know how important it is to handle their return to the office delicately and with empathy. Here are 6 points to keep in mind when helping your employees return from disability leave.
1. Have a policy in place and make sure it’s clearly communicated
In the absence of any communication around policy and expectations, employees will feel uncertain and even fearful of taking disability leave, even when they might need it. For this reason, having a clearly defined policy around disability leave is crucial at any stage of your company.
Steph Little, senior consultant at Bright+Early says that having a policy “ensures employees know where they stand so they don’t encounter extra stress and avoid having the conversation about needing a leave. If you don’t know where to start putting one together, engage an HR or legal professional as well as your insurance providers.”
Once you’ve clearly defined your policy, make sure that all managers are trained and up to speed on what to expect should someone on their team be on leave, and how to prepare for their employee’s return.
2. Establish lines of communication prior to leave
Before your employee begins their leave, it’s important to establish how much or how little they want to be communicated with, as well as which mediums they prefer to use for contact.
Isabel Duarte, a leadership coach, suggests asking the employee how they want to be communicated with while they’re out. She says to follow their lead and make it clear that when there are changes within the organization, that you are communicating to them because you want to let them know, but that there is no expectation to respond or items to be actioned.
This communication should be streamlined with their managers as well to avoid having multiple messages being sent to them.
Little says to be mindful of when your communications blur the line between helpful updates and requiring your employees to do actual work while on leave.
Each employee will want and need different things when it comes to communicating during their absence, and this should be respected and assessed on a case by case basis.
3. Respect their level of discretion
It’s crucial that as an employer, you respect their privacy. Beyond being respectful, sharing information about your employee’s absence without their permission could get you into legal trouble.
“Practice what you will say when someone puts you on the spot and asks you about their colleague’s leave,” Little suggests, as this will inevitably happen.
Upon the employee’s return, you can ask them how much or how little as well as what they would like to have communicated with their colleagues about their leave. Respect their wishes and shut down any gossip you might hear about it.
4. Partner with them to create accommodations upon return
Each case will be different and so it’s important to make accommodations for that person as they return. For example, they may need to work part-time before re-integrating full time. They may require to work from home regularly to attend follow up appointments. Make them feel welcomed and let them know that you value them as they return to their work.
Conduct a return to work interview when the time comes so that you can be clear ahead of the return date on the employee’s duties and required accommodations, according to Little.
Meet them where they are with their needs, even though it can be challenging.
5. Encourage empathy and compassion
It is vital to create a culture of empathy where nobody feels pressure to return before they are ready or de-valued for their absence. Duarte says the first step is making sure your employees know you have their best interests at heart and being a strong advocate for them.
Helping them re-integrate can sometimes be difficult and require your patience. Employees may need to be fully re-oriented into the company. They may be rusty and require a lot of your time. If you’re feeling short-fused about it, Little recommends ruling with kindness and not letting your frustration show.
6. Document as much as you can
While the person is away, document as much as you can when it comes to the process of disability leave and best practices. By doing this, you can keep improving the process for future folks in need.
You should also document as much as you can when it comes to their workload, who has been taking over for them, and what projects and work they have been undertaking. This way when they return, the person will have a place to start.
“Your state will have guidelines for the minimums required for you to meet as an employer,” Little says. “Beyond meeting these, remember that how you handle these situations can set you aside as an employer of choice or not. If you’re not satisfied with employees only putting in the bare minimum for you, then don’t put in the bare minimum for them when they need you most.”
There will never be a good time for someone to go on leave, but remember that beyond just running a business, you’re also dealing with people’s lives, so don’t wait until it hurts to create your policy.