6 Tips on Creating a More Empathetic Leave of Absence Process

Jellyvision Benefits Communication, Industry Insights

6 Tips Empathetic LoA copyAssisting employees with leave of absence (LoA) processing isn’t easy work. As any HR pro will tell you.

Have you ever been sick? I mean really sick? Worse, have you ever cared for a parent or child who has been really sick? It’s stressful and time-consuming; it requires a certain amount mental fortitude; and in some situations it can be emotionally shattering.

Have you ever had a baby? This includes hubbies who are there every step of the way. I haven’t myself, but from what I have seen, though it’s definitely a joyful occasion, it’s not a trip to Disneyland. Having a child is also stressful and time-consuming; it too requires a certain amount of mental fortitude; and in some situations, it can involve serious complications.

My point? The times employees need help managing their leave of absence (LoA) is when true HR work happens. When you’re challenged to put the human in human resources.

And though we all strive to be nice and kind every day, sometimes when we get busy, it’s easy to not be as thoughtful as we’d like to be. Which is why I made a short list of things to keep in mind when you do find yourself dealing with your next leave of absence situation.

 

#1. Challenge yourself to show your empathy in every little interaction you have with your LOA employees.

It’s funny. Throughout my HR career, I’ve been told on many occasions (heck, I’ve said on many occasions) that there are roles for every type of person in HR. If you’re an extrovert and like to interact with people…you can be a recruiter! And if you are an introvert, are OK with heads down number-crunching and are details-oriented administrator…you can be a benefits coordinator! Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In my opinion, regardless of your ‘DISC’ type, regardless if you are an introvert or extrovert, anyone helping with LoA administration needs to show empathy and care.

Here’s a few specific things you might try to do:

  • Have LoA conversations in a private room. The employee dealing with a delicate personal situation will appreciate it. And so will the person being interviewed by your recruiter-pal one cubicle over.
  • If you’re advising an employee through a difficult LoA reason, know that it’s OK to not know what to say. If you’re not sure what to say, just tell the person, ‘I don’t know what to say right now, but please know I hear what you are saying.’ More than getting sage advice, most people going through a stressful time just want to feel like they’re being heard and that someone cares. Let that be enough.
  • Treat the person the way they want to be treated. If they’re a hugger, hug them. If they’re more private, respect that and show your empathy in other ways.
  • Want to help yourself not forget to check in on certain LoA employees? Schedule time in your Outlook calendar to remind yourself to do just that (if they seem open to that, that is).

 

#2. Give your employees the clearest answers possible.

If you’re feeling ‘fuzzy’ about some aspect of the LoA process, just imagine how your employee is going to feel when you try to explain that thing to them. Making things not-fuzzy is just as important as managing the paperwork. Maybe even more so.

So if you aren’t clear about a particular aspect of your company, and/or your state’s LoA policy, reach out for answers. Maybe that’s contacting your benefits broker, or calling a peer in for help, or utilizing the tools provided by a particular HR association. Or you might even look into some of the new technologies out there that help HR teams out with LoA education, like ALEX on Leave of Absence.

And if you find yourself creating, say, a FAQ page about aspects of the LoA process, or a handout, or writing a one-off email to an employees, strive to give them information in the same, clear, conversational way you would if they were to just drop in your office for a chat.

 

#3. Trust your employees.

Understand that most employees would rather eat glass than take time off work for an extended period. The ones I have worked with–especially those off for short-term disability–feel a sense of guilt and, in some cases, shame. So: don’t make the mistake of going into the LoA partnership assuming the employee is trying to get free time off. Let them know that what they’re doing is totally okay and reassure them that the company will be OK when they’re out.

 

#4. Respond as quickly as possible to calls and emails.

You ever call the doctor’s office and know immediately you are not a priority? Ever sit in the waiting room for two hours after your scheduled appointment? It’s infuriating, right?

Don’t let your employees’ questions fall into an email black hole. Certainly, there are times you will not be able to meet with an employee immediately or even that day. And in those cases, make sure the employee knows that you have received their inquiry and that someone will be available to help by a specified time. A quick “got your email, I’m on it, don’t worry” sort of thing. LoA issues are stressful for employees. The more you can eliminate fear and uncertainty, the better.

 

#5. Remember: you’re not Dr. HR. Set boundaries on the type of assistance you can provide. HR can educate employees on the LoA process, options of services, and resources. HR can be present and listen. HR can give their focused time to help. However, you must know when it is time to forward an employee to a professional. A doctor, a counselor, or a lawyer. If you don’t have an Employee Assistance Program in place, consider setting one up. Some of your insurance providers have them for free.

 

#6. Take care of yourself. Helping people handle their leave of absence can take a toll on even the most experienced, steady HR pro. I’ve had to help employees through awful things (suicide attempts, severe pregnancy complications, unexpected family deaths, extended illnesses, substance abuse). I’ve also helped people through some wonderful life events. Regardless, there are emotional highs and lows, so make a point to reach out to your own support network when the burden starts to get extra-heavy.


When an employee takes a leave of absence, they often find themselves in the middle of one of the busiest, most stressful, and most vulnerable stretches of their lives. What this means for us HR pros is that, during these times, we have the opportunity to do some of our most meaningful and impactful work. And that’s really how to look at it, I think: not as “this thing we have to do, on top of all the regular stuff” but as an opportunity to be our best work-selves, and remind ourselves why we got into a career in Human Resources in the first place.