Assisting 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. It’s a joyful occasion, but having a child is also stressful and time-consuming.

And the last thing employees want to be doing during these busy and stressful times is thinking about their LOA benefits. That’s where HR (that’s you!) can step in—to offer a helpful hand, show employees how to take advantage of paid time off, and make the entire leave of absence process smooth.

Here are six ways to lead with empathy when you’re helping employees understand your personal leave policies:

1. Show empathy in every little interaction you have.

Anyone helping with LOA administration needs to show empathy and care. Here’s a few specific things you might try:

  • Have LOA conversations in a private room (or private Zoom). 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 employees are taking an absence from work during a difficult time, 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, and I’m here with you.’ 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.
  • Be sure to check in with employees after they’ve scheduled their leave of absence and see how they’re doing (if they seem open to it…sometimes employees just want space). Put time on your calendar to remind yourself to reach out.

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 clear 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, do your research and figure out the answers. Maybe that’s contacting your benefits broker, or calling a peer in for help, or using educational materials from a particular HR association. (We have a helpful guide on leave of absence definitions to get you started, too!)

And if you find yourself creating an FAQ page (or handout, or email) about aspects of the LoA process, 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. Many employees–especially those who are taking short-term disability–feel a sense of guilt and, in some cases, shame. So: don’t make the mistake of going into the LOA process 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.

Have you ever called the doctor’s office and understood immediately that 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” can make all the difference. Leave of absence 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. Help employees through challenging moments in their lives, like mental health crises, unexpected deaths or illnesses, and pregnancy complications can take a toll. 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, 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.

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