How to Help Employees Take a Leave of Absence: A Complete Guide for HR Teams

Blog how to take a leave of absence

Between the growing burnout rates and continued concerns around COVID-19, it’s safe to assume that leave of absence will be an increasingly important benefit over these next few years.  

As an employer, you want to make sure you’re prepared to handle this influx of requests. However, we know that navigating the ins and outs of leave of absence is complicated. From interpreting the federal and state regulations to tracking what your competitors are doing, there’s a lot of work that goes into crafting a leave of absence policy. 

To help you better communicate with your employees, we put together this guide, which walks you through the most common logistical concerns around leave of absence—and how to address them in a way that makes sense for your workforce.  

What is a leave of absence? 

First, let’s explore the definition of leave of absence. A leave of absence is an extended break from work, which employees can take for voluntary or involuntary reasons. Taking leave allows people to take time off while still having access to benefits and also ensures they’ll have their position when they return.

Asking for a leave of absence

The first topic we’re going to tackle is how to ask for a leave of absence. While this may seem like it should be as simple as an employee putting in a request to their manager, it’s unfortunately not so straightforward. 

For employees, asking for a leave of absence comes with a lot of concerns. Research has found that 31% of workers are fearful of workplace repercussions—such as getting fired, laid off, or skipped over for a promotion—if they take leave. And 29% believe there’s a negative perception associated with taking leave.

Knowing this, there’s a lot that you can do to mitigate those concerns. Here are a few tips to make asking for a leave of absence easier for employees: 

  • Answer the most important questions. Before an employee requests a leave, they’re going to want three questions answered: how much time can I take off? How do you get paid for a leave of absence? Is my job safe? Make sure to address each of these concerns across all your leave of absence materials (don’t worry, we’ll help you craft thoughtful responses to these questions in the next section). 
  • Have a clear process. Your employees will also want to know what the process of requesting a leave of absence looks like. Who do they have to inform first? What type of paperwork do they have to fill out? How long does it take to get the request approved? Reflect on these questions to create a process that makes sense for your company.
  • Make information accessible. Have all your leave of absence resources live in one place so that your employees can access the information whenever they need to. You can do this through your company’s intranet or even build a custom hub (we can help with that!) 

How to take a leave of absence from work

Now let’s dive into the actual logistics of how to take a leave of absence. There are a few things you and your employee have to know in advance—including the type of leave they’re taking, whether or not they’re getting paid, and the length of their leave.

What are the types of leave of absence?

There are two categories of leave of absence: mandatory and voluntary. 

Mandatory leave

This type of leave is protected by law and includes: 

  • Parental leave
  • Medical leave 
  • Military leave 
  • Military caregiver leave 
  • Disability leave

Voluntary leave

This type of leave is at the employer’s discretion. While it’s not protected by law, more organizations are offering voluntary leave as a benefit to attract and retain top talent. Examples include: 

  • Bereavement
  • Sabbatical 
  • Jury duty 
  • Education 
  • Relocation

If you’re looking for an even more in-depth breakdown of the different types of leave of absence, check out our explainer here

Is a leave of absence paid for employees?

The short answer: it depends. In general, here are the steps you should take to determine your payment policy for mandatory leaves: 

  1. Check the federal regulations
  2. Check your state-specific laws 
  3. Assess the right policy for your company

For voluntary leaves, you should: 

  1. Check your state-specific laws
  2. Assess the right policy for your company.

Let’s take a look at a few examples to see what this looks like in action. 

Example #1: Parental leave (mandatory leave) 

At the federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn or for a recently adopted or foster child. While this time off isn’t required to be paid, this is ultimately determined by both the state and the employer. 

Let’s assume, for instance, that your company is located in Rhode Island. The state law guarantees at least four weeks of paid leave for employees. However, you decide that, since the majority of your workforce is working parents, you want to invest in a more generous policy. So you decide to offer eight weeks of paid parental leave and four weeks of unpaid leave.

With this approach, you’re meeting all the federal and state-level requirements, while also taking the needs of your employees into consideration.

Example #2: Jury duty (voluntary leave) 

Since jury duty falls under the category of voluntary leave, there’s no universal law that mandates which provisions employers must make for employees. Instead, jury duty compensation laws vary from one state to another. 

In Colorado, for instance, employers are required to pay regular employees up to $50 per day for the first three days of trial or grand juror service. This includes part-time, temporary, and casual employees who have been with the company for at least three months. As an employer, you can choose to pay more than $50 per day.

How long should an employee’s leave of absence be? 

Again, it depends. Similar to the question of whether or not employees get paid, the length of time for a leave of absence depends on federal regulations, state-specific laws, and the employer’s preferences.

So if we return to the parental leave example, you can choose to give employees more than 12 weeks of time off. Similarly, for jury duty in Colorado, you can provide compensation for longer than the first three days. 

Should I communicate with my employees while they’re on leave?

Companies aren’t required to keep tabs on employees who are out on leave. However, we encourage you to do so, for a few reasons: 

  • Ensures compliance. Some types of leave have to follow certain regulations. For example, employees on leave due to a serious health condition will need a medical release to return to work. Keeping in touch with the person who is on leave ensures that HR has the latest updates and can support the employee accordingly.
  • Offers support. Whether someone is out due to a medical issue or for parental leave, the company can demonstrate support by sending sympathy cards, care packages, or gifts. These thoughtful gestures let the employee know that they’re on everyone’s minds and can help them feel connected to the organization.

Returning from a leave of absence

As employees get ready to return from a leave of absence, they may feel overwhelmed. To ensure a seamless transition back, follow these best practices: 

  • Make sure the manager is aware. Hopefully, the employee’s manager has been keeping in touch with the employee throughout their leave and is aware of their return date. You can work closely with them to prepare for the employee’s transition back, whether that’s by setting up their desk ahead of time or preparing the appropriate paperwork.
  • Have a transition period. Don’t expect an employee to return and immediately jump back into work. Instead, give them the time and space to ramp back up slowly, and on their own time. Consider putting together a schedule that maps out digestible, achievable goals for the first few weeks or months. This helps set clear expectations and can reduce the employee’s stress. 
  • Host a warm welcome back. Your employee is likely nervous about coming back to work after weeks or months away. Welcome them back with open arms and take a moment to celebrate—whether that’s with a virtual Zoom party or an in-person lunch. 

Above all, be empathetic. Recognize that your employee may have a physically and emotionally tough time coming back to the office—especially if they’re returning from medical, bereavement, parental, or caregiving leave. Give them the space, resources, and support they need to succeed in their transition back to work.

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