Communication During an Employee’s Sick Leave
Communication During an Employee’s Sick Leave

It can be difficult for an employer to balance the responsibilities and interests when managing an employee who is on sick leave. However, knowing the right questions to ask, can really help to facilitate a smooth and successful employee absence.

Managing an Employee’s Sick Leave

There are many aspects that the employer needs to consider, when an employee goes on a leave of absence. They need to: replace the job role during the absence, manage and file the necessary paperwork for WCB, sort out sick leave pay, determine short term or long term disability, and communicate between departments around the employee’s absence. All these responsibilities are impacted by internal policies, legislation, privacy rules, and one’s moral compass, therefore it can be easy to focus on following the rules while being diligent in managing an employee’s absence, and difficult to determine how to most effectively communicate with the employee themselves.

The CARE™ Model

More often than not, employers are reluctant to overreach or break the rules, as they are unsure how the employee will perceive their outreach. Will they feel harassed? Bothered? The irony is that almost 100% of the employees we work with who have been away from work express that they want to stay in touch, and feel abandoned when the employer doesn’t communicate regularly.

I frequently recommend the CARE™ model for managing employee absence (Communicate, Accommodate, Return to work planning, Evaluate). It’s simple, effective, and guides employers and employees through some difficult challenges. The first part of the model is communicate, which is an essential part of the employee’s absence.

Creating Successful Communication During an Employee Absence

Successful communication starts with having a plan established as a regular practice and/or written policy, so employees expect that you will be in touch when they are away from work.  It’s also important to communicate in a caring way. You can often gather the information you need while still treating the employee kindly; even if their work absence is creating a challenge for you.

Here are some questions to consider asking your employee; maybe not all in the same contact, but these can guide your dialogue:

  1. How are you? It may seem obvious, but it can easily be forgotten amidst the details you require to complete your responsibilities. Before reaching out, take a moment to prepare and think about your employee’s situation.  If they are in the midst of a health crisis – any health issue that keeps one from working IS a health crisis – they will likely appreciate a personal connection.  Be authentic to who you are; phrase this in your own way but in a genuine inquiry into how the person is doing. Be clear that you are not interested in their private details, but making a general inquiry on how they are.
  2. How (and with who) would you prefer to stay in touch? There are many different situations that result in a medical leave from work; and just as many communication plans.  Your employee may have strong feelings about who they would like to contact or hear from.  When possible, try to accommodate your employee’s requests. If your policy requires them to contact their supervisor each week, but your employee is having a dispute with the supervisor, consider changing their contact person for a while.  If they are not comfortable with random phone calls – they can create a lot of anxiety – then consider scheduling check in calls, or emails.  Make sure your employee knows that staying in touch is important because you care about them and their health. You can also tell them that you need some information to do your job, but that should not be focus of your contact. Keep in mind that sometimes avoiding contact with work is recommended; in that case, set up a follow up time and have your employee recommend how that take place.
  3. Are you getting the help you need? A person will not always ask about services that may be available through their employer. Ask specifically if your employee is receiving good care. Tell them you aren’t asking for specific details, and tell them about the different services you may have available for them; such as an employee assistance program, or a disability management contractor. One employer I worked with discovered that the employee could be working if they had a ride to/from work 3 days a week, which was easily and quickly arranged through a low cost ride share. If you have a website or other central place for information, provide that in as many forms as possible; via a phone call, email, letter. Tell your employee that you understand that return to work is part of recovery and you want to work with them to support them.  You can’t know what support to provide unless they tell you — so ask!
  4. How can we support you? Every employee is different, and has different expectations of their employer.  There may be support that you can provide that make a big difference to the recovery of your employee, and may even strengthen their commitment to you.  We once helped to organize a rotating social visit for an employee who was really missing the contact with co-workers.  The employee couldn’t come to the workplace due to health, so the employer invited volunteers to sign up for regular visits.  This gesture cost nothing but reaped huge rewards for the employee who was off work, for those who could visit and stay in touch, and for the trust and bond between the employer and the employee.
  5. Are there work related items that we can help you with? There are often unanswered questions or arrangements that would greatly improve your employee’s circumstance; but they may not know how to ask. One employee had been working on a major project and left suddenly.  She never heard about the outcome, and it bothered her. Her employer asked this question and it opened up a dialogue about the outcome of the project. This really helped that employee to feel connected to work, despite the fact that she was away, and it relieved some of her guilt about abandoning her coworkers before the project was complete.

Notice that there is no question about when the employee is expected to return to work. Of course you will need to gather that information, but it shouldn’t be the first or only thing you ask. An employee will understand that you need to plan for his/her return, but appreciate a genuine acknowledgement of the difficult situation they are in.

If you find yourself wanting to ask these questions, but aren’t sure how, or need some extra support, please feel free to reach out to me personally. Myself, or a team member of mine, would be more than happy to support you with what you need, because done properly, an employee’s sick leave can be an enjoyable and smooth process.

Diana Vissers is the Founder and Director of Corporate Services at Work to Wellness Rehabilitation Inc. – a Canadian company providing expert disability management services to Canadian customers. She is in the business of making your place of business healthy, safe and productive. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for the latest news and updates on health, wellness and integrated disability management.