September 28, 2023
Leaves of absence often accompany the most significant moments in an employee's life, from welcoming a new child to undergoing surgery to caring for or losing a loved one. As employers continue to recognize the role leave plays in bolstering employee well-being, there is a growing recognition that a leave of absence isn’t just about the actual time spent away from the workplace – it’s about the overarching leave experience before, during and after an employee takes leave. According to Business Group on Health’s 2020 Large Employers' Leave Strategy and Transformation Survey, the employee experience with the leave process is the second most significant challenge related to leave and absence management, with 66% of employers calling it a hurdle. Furthermore, employers must consider multiple stakeholders throughout the leave journey, from employees to managers to family members.
The following recommendations for curating an optimal leave experience were informed by members of Business Group on Health’s Leave Optimization Forum.
Leading up to a Leave
The time preceding a leave of absence is a prime opportunity to set the leave experience up for success. Employers can proactively educate employees on available benefits and cultivate a culture that contributes to a supportive leave experience. Consider the following approaches to set the stage for a successful leave of absence.
Create a culture that embraces leave as part of the employee life cycle
Possibly the most important element in creating a positive leave experience is laying the foundation in advance. Employees are more likely to have a positive leave experience when they have the full support of their managers and teams. Companies should encourage a workplace culture that promotes psychological safety and recognizes leaves of absence as an innate part of the employee life cycle not as a burden or inconvenience for team members. There are many ways to normalize taking leave, including leadership modeling. For example, leaders who are new parents can set a positive example by taking all the parental leave available to them. When new parents, regardless of gender, see leaders taking available parental leave, it encourages them to do the same. Another way employers can normalize the leave experience is to reframe mental health-related leaves. By proactively cultivating a culture that reduces stigma and allows employees to ask for help without fear of retribution, employers can encourage employees to seek help in the moments that matter. Finally, employers can reframe the leave experience in a more positive light by acknowledging the significance a leave of absence can have for employees. For example, there is often an assumption that if an employee is taking caregiver leave, something is wrong; rather, taking caregiver leave can be an indication of an important relationship in an employee’s life and should be regarded as a positive.
For more information on how to build a comprehensive mental health strategy for your workforce, refer to Business Group on Health’s resource, Engineering Mental Health: Building a Strategy from the Ground Up.
Partner with employee resource groups (ERGs) to inform an ideal leave experience
ERGs are an invaluable partner when creating an optimal leave experience. Employees often turn to their peers when seeking or sharing benefits information, and ERG partnerships give employers an opportunity to educate employees on available benefits while ensuring that the right benefits information is communicated. For example, employers can collaborate with ERGs to host regular parental leave planning sessions to familiarize employees with requirements about leaves and various benefits and resources available to them. Beyond conveying benefits information, ERGs offer an avenue to reduce stigma surrounding leaves of absence. For example, employers can partner with mental health ally ERGs to remind employees that they can take leave for mental health conditions, or even partner with ERGs on stigma reduction campaigns. Many employers also tap into feedback received through ERG channels to understand what leave processes could be improved and have found success in partnering with ERGs to create guides and roadmaps for employees to effectively navigate the leave landscape.
Offer flexibility within leave policies
Employers can take a fresh look at leave policies and consider how they can be adapted to allow employees more flexibility prior to a leave of absence. While many policies are written to allow for leave following a significant event, employees might benefit from time away prior to a life event. For example, employers can offer expecting parents a week or two of pre-arrival leave to prepare for their new addition. Another leading practice is to grant employees bereavement leave prior to a loved one’s death to give the employee time to be with their loved one in their final days. Some employers have created a compassion leave bucket for this need, granting employees leave to use at their discretion for times like a loved one’s final days.
Have a plan for covering the workload
Both employees going on leave and their team members can be concerned about how the work will get done when someone is on leave. Strategies employers can implement to maintain productivity over the course of a leave include offering stretch assignments, hiring temporary staff, formalizing rotations for coverage and redistributing and postponing work. Depending on the individual, role and circumstance, it may be appropriate to have the employee prepare a proposal for how work duties should be reassigned and handled while they are away. Other circumstances may necessitate having the manager take the lead for developing a plan or creating a plan as a team. Managers can frame the experience as an opportunity for more junior employees to stretch their capabilities. Lastly, it can be helpful to use leave and absence data to predict future leaves and incorporate that into overall workforce planning to ensure the right number of employees are available for seamless operations.
During a Leave of Absence
Employees on a leave of absence are often navigating significant life changes, all while caring for their own health or that of a loved one. Employers should focus on creating a seamless process that reduces the burden on employees while providing support, clear communications and compassion. Consider the following touchpoints throughout an employee’s time away that can lend themselves to a better experience:
Create clear and concise communications
There is often an overwhelming amount of information to communicate when an employee takes leave, from eligibility and medical forms to state and country-specific leave benefits and more. Employers are rethinking the traditional stacks of leave paperwork, trimming them down so that only the most critical information is addressed upfront. When going out on leave, employees are likely most concerned with the amount of leave available to them, if and how their pay will be impacted and if their job is safe while they are away. Clearly addressing these concerns at the beginning of the process can ease anxiety and allow employees to focus on other items that need their attention.
Leading employers are also helping employees navigate leave and life changes through toolkits and guides that outline the various benefits, services and leaves available. Because these life stages are often overwhelming, clear guidance from employers can alleviate additional stress and confusion. For example, some employers have created communications for employees on bereavement leave that outlines the paperwork and deadlines to adhere to after a loved one passes away (e.g., filing timelines for life insurance claims).
Simplify the application process
In addition to addressing the most common questions and concerns for those on a leave of absence, employers can also simplify paperwork and other requirements. Some employers who offer caregiver leave have streamlined the process by matching the FMLA certification process, while others simply require an attestation in place of lengthy forms. One obstacle employers have identified is that vendors often require an end date on leave application forms, which can be tricky for those applying for intermittent leaves with ambiguous timeframes. Consider working with vendor partners to identify ways to work around this unintended obstacle. Another leading practice is to simplify and speed up the process for those who need to take leave. For example, many large employers have created “fast-track” approval processes to approve mental health-related leaves up front for a short period of time (2 to 4 weeks) with either a physician’s note or confirmation of the mental health treatment, ensuring that employees can take leave when needed. Some employers have even hired medical directors with mental health expertise to ensure a smooth process for employees, while others have hired dedicated mental health case managers to support employees.
Coordinate across benefits
While on leave, an employee is likely utilizing multiple company-sponsored benefits. Employers can coordinate across these offerings for a more synchronized experience. For example, if an employer anticipates that a leave of absence will transition from short-term to long-term disability, the employer can flag the case internally so the leave team can handhold the employee through the next administrative phase in the leave process. Leading employers also cross-train representatives who handle disability and leave cases for a more compassionate experience; for example, employers can specifically train dedicated disability advocates on the most empathetic way to interact with employees who have a terminal illness. Another way to coordinate across benefits is to consolidate benefit communications. Many employers tack on advertisements for additional benefits, such as employee assistance programs (EAPs), when mailing leave communications.
Pair employees with compassion concierges
“Compassion concierges” can be a vital component of the leave experience for employees, especially those navigating the loss of a loved one or a critical diagnosis. The role of a compassion concierge can range from helping employees understand the benefits available to them (such as second opinion services, mental health and grief counseling, estate planning and more) to supporting paperwork processes to serving as a benefits liaison and more. Some employers offer a dedicated concierge through the life insurance vendor who has been trained on company culture and can walk employees or family members through tactical items like final paychecks, stock vesting, bonuses and gathering personal belongings. Many employers also offer empathy training for vendor representatives, specifically to train them to compassionately support employees diagnosed with terminal illnesses.
Establish a cadence of communication
When an employee is on leave, establishing clear communication boundaries is key. First and foremost, employers should identify the best point of contact for the employee while they are away (outside of any necessary human resources contacts). For some, it might be their manager; for others, it might be a mentor or close colleague. This individual should be responsible for checking in on the employee, sharing life updates (e.g., distributing birth announcements and pictures of a newborn) and communicating back to the broader team. Once a point of contact is established, confirm the employee's communication preferences. Some might want to be kept in the loop on big projects or office occurrences, while others will want to step away from work entirely. Managers should consider having these conversations with their employees as part of regular check-ins to be prepared for any unplanned leaves. Identifying these preferences upfront will ensure that an employee feels respected and supported during their time away.
Incorporate acts of kindness
Small acts of kindness can have a profound impact on an employee’s leave experience. Some employers offer a meal delivery benefit for new parents, grieving families or employees recovering from an illness to lessen the burden of cooking during a busy or stressful time. Acts of kindness can extend beyond a leave of absence, too. Some employers send flowers or donations in memory of lost loved ones, both at the time of the loss and at the anniversary of the event. Managers can incorporate this small habit too by adding a recurring calendar reminder for the birth of an employee’s baby, the loss of a loved one, the date an employee is declared cancer-free or any other significant anniversary. This gesture is a small but significant way to demonstrate care and compassion.
Consistency is key
Regardless of the type of leave, employers should prioritize a consistent experience for all employees and across various leave types. Take time to review the policies currently in place and confirm that the language is consistent throughout (e.g., aligned eligibility requirements and definitions of family). Another way to achieve consistency is to ensure that different employee populations have access to the same types and amount of leave, where possible. Creating a consistent experience can reduce employee confusion and make the benefit more equitable.
Reintegrating After a Leave
Returning from a leave of absence can be an overwhelming moment for many employees. Almost all leaves of absence are life-changing in some way, and employees coming back to work might be faced with new responsibilities at home (like a new child or sick dependent) that will change how they view themselves and their roles at home and at work. Employers can support employees through this time of transition by taking the following steps to ensure that employees have a positive experience upon returning to work.
Facilitate a smooth reentry experience
Many employers offer a phased return-to-work program so employees can gradually readjust to the workforce after being out for a lengthy period of time. These programs can be structured in a variety of ways to meet the needs of an organization. For employers with a flexible working environment, an employee may choose to work half days for an increment of time (i.e., 4 weeks following their return date) or only work 3 out of 5 days a week as they ramp back up. Others may choose to structure the return program more formally; for example, the first month back may be focused on simply reacclimating and catching up with teammates on projects and changes, while the second month might be dedicated to starting new projects on a part-time basis, prior to jumping back in fully. While phased returns are often offered in conjunction with parental leave, leading employers are broadening the eligibility for phased return programs, since they can be valuable for anyone returning from a significant leave of absence.
Gather feedback to improve future leave experiences
Gathering feedback upon an employee’s return is an invaluable way to inform future leave strategies. One approach is to stagger the surveys, gathering feedback right after an employee's return as well as at a subsequent date (e.g., a month later) to glean insights on both the leave and the return experience. In developing these surveys, employers can consider including questions that ask about the frequency and type of communication, the quality of the interactions with the absence management team or vendor (i.e., was paperwork handled in a timely manner, were representatives helpful and empathetic) and what additional supports could be put in place to improve future leave experiences.
Looking Forward: Optimizing the Leave Experience
As employers continue to fine tune the leave of absence benefits available to employees, there is recognition that creating a positive and compassionate leave experience is just as crucial as offering time away. Employers can use internal allies, including managers and ERGs, to hone employee feedback and inform future leave strategies. Ultimately, weaving education, understanding and compassion into the leave of absence process will elevate the employee experience.