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How to Explain a "Leave of Absence" to Your Employees

by Caroline Boyland July 10, 2022

The benefit of a leave of absence

When we say “employee benefits,” many people immediately think about health insurance, dental, and maybe even vision coverage. This is understandable, as health insurance is an essential component of our everyday lives, and because of its importance, it takes up a lot of space in benefits discussions.

Here at Nayya though, we love talking about all things employee benefits, even the much-less-discussed (but still so important!) benefits. One of these little discussed benefits? The option to take a leave of absence.

A leave of absence can be a crucial tool to help employees achieve the ever-elusive balance between work and life. It can provide much-needed time off to take care of personal or family health issues, deal with the death of a loved one, or just take a break to recharge.

The option to take a leave of absence is critical, and can actually have a direct impact on employee satisfaction, burnout, and retention. The issue is, many employees may not know that they even have the option to take a leave of absence, or they may feel like it’s one of those things that are available, but they feel like they’ll be penalized for using it in some way. Let’s deep dive into what a leave of absence consists of and how you can communicate these to your employees.

What is a leave of absence?

Simply put, a leave of absence is an authorized period of time off from work. Meaning, the leave of absence will be approved by the employer, and is typically granted for a specific purpose. Depending on the reason behind the leave of absence, it could look different to each employee.

A leave of absence can be voluntary (such as, taking days off for a surgery, for religious reasons, for schooling, etc.), or it could be involuntary (such as a disciplinary suspension). This time off can be paid or unpaid, depending on the company and the circumstances, but is most commonly a paid leave.

Even if the leave of absence is unpaid, you may still have access to certain benefits, including the ability to continue accumulating vacation days, access to health insurance, and the guarantee of a job upon return.

Impact on retention

There are a few different reasons why an employee may desire a leave of absence (we’ll outline these in the next section), but sometimes, they may be unaware that they even have the option to take leave if needed.

It’s important to foster a culture of transparency and communication within your organization to 1. Ensure employees know that they have this option available and 2. Help the process go smoothly once an employee does take that leave.

Make sure you have resources available to your employees about what a leave of absence is, and the different reasons why they might need to take one. Make sure to include all the details about how much time they can take for different situations, whether it’s paid, whether their benefits carry over through that time, and anything else they may need to know.

These resources will be critical, especially if the leave is for health, family, our emotional reasons. Employees may feel embarrassed, insecure, or just uncomfortable talking directly to their boss about the situation if they don’t know that this is an option for them. So providing resources that say “these are the types of situations that may arise in life, if you’re experiencing them and need to take a leave of absence, here’s what that time would entail in terms of duration, pay, benefits, etc., and here are next steps if you’d like to request this time off.” This can create clarity and confidence for employees to take the next steps to take the time they need. Time that can be so, so critical in ensuring employee happiness, satisfaction, and improving retention.

Types of leave

Generally speaking, there are four main forms that a leave of absence could take.

1. Medical Leave This type of leave is taken when the employee, or an employee’s family member, needs time to deal with a serious health issue. This could be managing an ongoing illness, undergoing or recovering from surgery, etc.

In the US, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides some guarantees to certain employees faced with medical situations. These include up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, as well as job protection and the continuation of health insurance. Medical leave is usually only granted in cases of serious illness or injury that will require an extended period of recovery time, and a doctor's report is generally required.

2. Family Leave Family leave is typically taken when an employee needs time to deal with a family development or obstacle. This covers a wide range of situations with varying degrees of severity.

For example, family leave covers parents who need time off to bond with a new child after a birth, adoption, or foster care placement. It could also cover the leave taken to be with a family member who is sick, or bereavement leave after the passing of a family member.

In the US, the FMLA also provides some protections for employees taking family leave. Like medical leave, family leave is generally unpaid, but job protection and the continuation of health insurance are typically included.

3. Personal Leave Personal leave is taken when employees need time for themselves and is not related to medical or family reasons. This can include vacation time, time off to deal with stress or burnout, or to pursue a personal interest or hobby.

In most cases, personal leave is unpaid, but the amount of time off and whether health insurance is continued will depend on the company's policy.

Sabbatical is a type of personal leave; a planned, extended period of time off from work, typically ranging from a few months to a year or more. Sabbaticals are generally taken to further one's education, travel, or take on a new challenge.

4. Military Leave Military leave is taken when an employee needs to take time off for active duty or reservist training.

In the US, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and the FMLA protect employees who take military leave and require employers to provide job protection and continuation of health insurance.

As a leave of absence can have a wide variety of motives and be planned or unexpected, it can sometimes catch other employees by surprise and raise questions, which is why it's important to be mindful of the communication around it.

Communicating pre+post a leave of absence

When an employee goes on leave of absence, whether for a few days or several months, it's inevitable that it will have some impact on the rest of the team and their workload. Naturally, you can expect a lot of questions to come up. Because of this, it’s essential to have a clear plan for communication.

Here are some of the things you should consider:

Be transparent, but respect privacy Employees will want to know why their colleague is away, how long, and what it means for the team. But at the same time, it's important to respect the privacy of the employee on leave, especially when the cause is for private matters. The best way to strike this balance is to be open and transparent about the general situation but refrain from giving too many details.

For example, instead of “Suzy’s son tore his ACL playing soccer and needs to get surgery, Suzy will be out for a few days to drive him to the procedure and help him recover afterwards.”

Try something like “Suzy will be on leave this week, Tuesday-Friday, on leave for a family matter. She will be back in the office on Monday. If you are in need of her assistance on any existing projects or have any further questions please let me know.”

This method of communication still gives team members insight into what is going on, when they can expect to see Suzy again, and who to go to if they need her assistance on anything that they are working on. It gives them information on Suzy’s whereabouts without sharing personal information about herself or her family.

Plan when you can If possible, it's best to give other employees as much notice as possible so that everyone can prepare accordingly. For long leaves, it may even be necessary to hire temporary replacements.

If the leave is unexpected, such as in the case of a medical emergency (like for Suzy’s son in the previous scenario), then it may not be possible to give much notice. In this case, it's important to be understanding and give employees time to adjust and let them know where they can go if they need their colleague’s assistance on anything.

Be clear about the backup planning Employees will want to know what is expected of them while their colleague is away and who will be taking over their responsibilities.

It's important to be clear about these things from the start to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding, especially for any projects in progress.

If the leave is short (less than a week), it shouldn’t be necessary to reallocate too many tasks. If the leave is longer, however, make sure to communicate early to employees whether or not they will be responsible for any additional work—and be prepared for employees to potentially ask for additional compensation to account for additional work.

While a leave of absence can be disruptive to a team, with careful planning and communication, it doesn't have to be a negative experience. By being open and transparent and setting clear expectations, you can help make sure that everyone is on the same page and that the team can continue to work effectively.

A better experience

As well as ensuring that there is a clear plan for communicating the leave of absence, there are a few things you can do to make the experience better for everyone involved. The first thing is to be understanding. Both the employee on leave of absence and the rest of the team may be going through a difficult time, and it's crucial to show empathy and be accommodating.

It's also important to train managers and team leaders on how to deal with leaves of absence so that they are better prepared to handle the situation and can support employees through the process. Setting the right tone from the top will make it easier for everyone to adapt and show respect.

Finally, it's important to have a plan for when the employee returns so that they can ease back into work and feel like they are supported.

In summary

A solid leave of absence policy can make employees feel that their employer supports them and gives them the flexibility they need in life, which can lead to improved morale and engagement.

It's important to remember that communication is key, both in setting up the leave and when the employee returns to work. By managing the communication effectively, you can make the process smoother for everyone involved and normalize the experience of taking a leave of absence, showing that you value employees' well-being and are willing to invest in them.

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