Handling Long-Term Absences in Your Team

Preparing Early for Extended Leaves

Handling Long-Term Absences in Your Team - Preparing Early for Extended Leaves

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How will your team cope if someone leaves a gap?

Chin-Hae handles some of his company's most important accounts, and his team leader, Jan, depends on his contribution to get the team's job done. Unfortunately, a member of Chin-Hae's family has fallen ill unexpectedly, and he needs to take some time off to care for her.

While Chin-Hae is away, Jan telephones him frequently to say that work is piling up. She tells him that his colleagues are struggling under the extra workload, and that they have to work longer hours to cover for him. She hints that, if Chin-Hae stays away much longer, she might have to hire a permanent replacement.

Chin-Hae finds this extremely stressful. He feels under pressure to return to work, even though his family still needs him at home. Because of Jan's behavior, he is thinking about resigning altogether.

Unfortunately, coping with an extended absence is an inevitable part of working in a leadership role. Sooner or later, someone will get sick, be hurt in an accident, go on maternity leave, or have to care for a family member.

While you can't predict who will need an extended leave of absence or when it will happen, you can control its impact by planning ahead. A well-thought-out plan helps the rest of your team remain productive and happy. It also gives absent team members peace of mind, knowing that their projects or accounts will be taken care of, and that they won't return to a mountain of work.

In this article, we'll look at how you can prepare for both planned and unexpected long-term absences.


The actions you need to take to manage any particular case of long-term absence will be covered by national/state law and your organization's HR policies. Take appropriate HR or legal advice as soon as you discover that a member of your team will be absent for the long term.

The Impact of Long-Term Absence

In 2007, shares in Lloyds Banking Group slumped after Chief Executive António Horta-Osório took a sudden and extended absence for a stress-related sleep problem.

According to recent pieces of research done by the UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), long-term absences like Horta-Osório's are on the rise, thanks to increasingly common incidences of stress and chronic illness such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Other reasons for long-term absence include caring for aging parents or young children, military service, jury duty, recovering from an accident, and other family or life commitments.

The impact of long-term absence can be significant. Research from the Integrated Benefits Institute tells us that poor health (a major cause of long-term absence) costs the U.S. economy $576 billion per year. In the U.K., Dame Carol Black's and David Frost's 2008 study found that sickness absence costs British employers approximately £11 billion a year, with long-term illness accounting for up to 75 percent of this sum.

Other, direct and indirect costs to businesses include lost productivity, customer dissatisfaction, poor work quality, temporary staffing costs, and costs of training for replacement staff.

Effective planning and management can help to reduce the costs associated with long-term absence, and it can ease people's return to work when the absence is over.

Laws on Extended Leave

It is important to be aware of the employment laws that protect team members' rights when they are on long-term leave.

For example, in the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks off for illness or family responsibilities. During this time, employers are obliged to protect their job, and to continue to provide health insurance coverage.

In the U.K., people are only considered to be long-term sick, according to government guidelines, after being absent from work for four weeks or more, and they are entitled to a fixed rate of statutory sick pay for 28 weeks. If they are unable to return to work within a reasonable time after this, they can be fairly dismissed. ("Reasonable" is related to the nature of the job and the resources of the business.)

How to Plan for a Long-Term Absence

It is important that you make contingency plans for long-term absence. Work flow and productivity can rapidly decline if there is no plan to replace absent team members, and this can have a knock-on effect on everyone else on the team.

Likewise, failing to plan for a person's return to work after a long period away can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety, which can lead to further absences, burnout and lower productivity.

Use the strategies below to prepare for possible long-term absence on your team.

1. Build Trust

Without trust, your team members are unlikely to come to you with their problems. This can mean that you only learn about a problem that requires a leave of absence when someone calls to tell you that they can't come to work.

If people are confident that you will show them support and understanding, they are far more likely to discuss worries about ailing parents or chronically ill family members with you, giving you a chance to plan ahead.

To build trust within your team, take time to get to know everyone personally. Share personal stories, and ask about their friends, families and hobbies.

How you handle absences has a direct effect on how quickly and easily absent team members return to work. Try to demonstrate sensitivity, compassion, empathy, and understanding about their situations.

2. Document Processes

Good Knowledge Management practices will help you to reassign work during a leave of absence.

Make sure that you clearly document all of the processes your team uses, and that key knowledge is recorded (this can be in databases, knowledge management systems or wikis.)

This way, everyone on your team will know where to go for essential information when a core team member is unavailable.

3. Meet One-to-One

When a leave of absence is imminent, meet with your team member one-to-one. Talk openly about his upcoming absence, and about any concerns that he may have.

Use Empathic Listening during this conversation to show trust and support. While you may not want to get too personal, ask leading questions to find out why he needs to take leave and, if possible, how long he expects to be away.

It is possible that he won't know how long his absence will be. Ask him about maintaining contact during his absence. Find out if he can be available if questions or emergencies come up. Agree the boundaries in advance, such as when, how and by whom he would like to be contacted.

It's essential to show support, sensitivity and compassion during this meeting. It is likely that your team member is feeling anxious about taking extended leave. Let him know that the organization will support him during his absence and that you want to keep him in the loop while he's away.

4. Plan a Successful Handover

When you know that someone is going to take a leave of absence, plan ahead to ensure that the handover is successful.

Use DILO (Day in the Life of) Analysis to get the person taking leave to write an updated job description, a list of upcoming deadlines and current project goals, and a list of her daily responsibilities.

If she works directly with clients or suppliers, ask her to make a list of her contacts, noting any important information about each account.

Talk to her openly about accessing her email account or company cell phone while she's away – transparency is important to maintain trust. (Check with HR that you are entitled to do this.) And give the team member taking over in her absence all the support and information he or she needs to handle his or her new responsibilities.

Help whoever is taking over as much as possible. Choose the best person for the job, then give her on-the-job training or shadowing, so that she has a sense of what her new responsibilities entail.

Coping With an Unexpected Absence

You can't prepare for every absence or emergency, but you can plan ahead for the unexpected absence of core team members by conducting a risk analysis and creating a contingency plan, just in case.

A 2010 report by Standard Insurance Company found that, during an absence, replacement employees are 21 to 29 percent less efficient and 15 to 44 percent more expensive than the absent employee.

You can offset some of these costs by making sure that everyone on your team is cross-trained. Cross-training gives you a highly flexible workforce, so that you can delegate tasks and roles with confidence during an unexpected absence.

You can also plan ahead by making a list of your team's strengths and skills, and by imagining which other roles team members would thrive in. This "matchmaking" game can be useful when a long-term absence takes you by surprise.

When you delegate responsibilities to another member of the team, take care to monitor his work hours so that he doesn't suffer from burnout or exhaustion. This is especially important when team members are doing more than one job. You might also need to adjust their compensation, based on this additional work.

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Easing Team Members Back Into Work

Returning to work after an extended absence can be difficult for some people – especially if they are recovering from a long-term illness – so it is important that you manage the situation carefully. Consider implementing the following suggestions:

  • Before she comes back to work, encourage her to "break the ice" by meeting colleagues for lunch or coffee to catch up and re-establish relationships.
  • Ask if there's anything you can do to ease the transition. For example, team members who have been ill might need to leave early, take frequent breaks, or make changes to their desk or workspace.
  • Communicate any changes to her work routine, client list or responsibilities. Update her on the progress of projects that she was working on before she left, and introduce her to any new or upcoming projects that she is going to be involved with, now that she is back.
  • Don't expect her to return to "full force" from day one. It might be better if she returns part-time for a week or two, with minimal responsibilities, until she gets back into the swing of things. Bear in mind that she may need support for several weeks or months after she returns. In this case, consider assigning a fellow team member to assist with certain responsibilities.
  • Working from home can be an effective way to reintegrate team members, as it's usually low-stress and they can take breaks as they need to. If it's appropriate, ask your returning team member if she would prefer to work from home for a while, to help ease her transition.

Key Points

Life can be unpredictable, which means that it's highly likely that you'll need to cope with a team member's long-term absence at some point in your career. As a manager, you need to know how to prepare for both expected and unexpected long-term absences.

To prepare for a planned leave, make sure that everyone on your team is cross-trained, so that other people can share the load. Document all of the processes in your organization and keep this information up to date and accessible, to help with this.

When the time comes for absent team members to return to work, help to ease the transition by allowing them to return part-time or to work from home. Provide a full update on the status of their projects and communicate any changes to their role and routines that happened while they were away. Consider providing help with certain duties until they are up to speed again.