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Plan, Prepare, Conquer: How to Handle Leave of Absences Without Stressing Your Staff

Suzanne Lucas

Sooner or later you're going to have an employee that needs to take a leave of absence.

Most likely (if you have more than 50 people at your company), this LOA will be covered under the Familly Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which means that not only do you have to grant the leave, you can't punish the person in any way, shape, or form for taking time off.

Naturally, anyone with even a modicum of compassion will be happy to grant the time to someone who is critically ill, has a new baby, or is taking care of a sick family member.

Compassion aside, though, the people left at the office still have the burden of doing the work.

The last thing you want is to send your remaining staff out on stress leave because of the extra work.

Here are some ways you can handle leaves of absences without putting too much stress on your remaining staff.

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Plan Ahead

Look, this is going to happen, and you may or may not have a warning. Sure, if someone has a baby, you'll have advanced notice, but if someone gets cancer?

Today everything seems fine, tomorrow your employee might have surgery scheduled, and her life turned completely upside down.

So, you need to prepare today because you don't know what will happen tomorrow. 

Start with cross training. You don't want to be in a situation where only Barb has the passwords to the server, and Steve has the client list in his computer files, but no one knows what that file is named, since Steve likes to be "creative."

You should have at least one designated backup for every person in your department. The backup doesn't need to be as proficient as the expert, but that person does need to exist. 

Ask for Advice

If you have any advanced notice of a leave fo absence, have that person create a plan for handling things in her absence.

She can tell you what things can slide for a time, what things are critical, and can probably identify the people who would be best suited to handle each task.

If your employee is client facing before the leave begins, assign someone to shadow her with each client, so it's not a big surprise for the client when someone else is handling the case. 

If you have no warning, this is where your planning ahead helps out a great deal.

FMLA regulations allow you to contact someone on leave for minor things, like passwords, or the location of an important file so that you can do that but don't rely on this loophole to get through. 

Divide and Conquer

Denial often runs strong in a department where someone is out on leave. Instead of dividing up important tasks in advance, everyone just waits for a fire to start and then someone runs to put it out.

This is not effective and brings a tremendous amount of stress into the department. After all, if you don't plan in advance, when do you find out here's a problem?

Generally at the end of the business day when a client calls asking where the report is. Because it's a critical report, that means someone has to stay late to fix it up and send it out.

Then this happens the next day with another client, lather, rinse, repeat. 

If your remaining employees, on the other hand, know that they need to each take on three of Jane's clients, they can plan ahead and schedule their other tasks.

Yes, it takes more time to get their work and Jane's work done, but they know. They can rearrange their schedules to put things in proper perspective.

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When you divide the labor, make sure you provide the resources as well. Don't say, "Bob, you're good at Excel, so you can maintain Jane's Access database while she's gone because they are similar programs."

Instead stay, "Bob, you're good at Excel, so I'm going to send you to Access training so you can maintain Jane's database while she's gone." 

Drop Stuff

Let's face it, not everything you do, every day, is critical to the company's success. There are many things that can be pushed off, even for a few months.

Not every meeting is critical. Not every email needs to be answered in 20 minutes. Some things just aren't as critical.

So, don't make your staff feel like they have to every single on of Jane's tasks plus every single one of their tasks while Jane is out. That's a recipe for a stress filled disaster.

Let it go.

Consider Hiring a Temp

This works the best for low-level jobs that someone can easily pick up, but it also works for higher level jobs. How so?

Well, you can hire an expert who is currently unemployed, or you can hire a consultant, or you can hire someone to take care of the entire departments' lower level tasks while everyone else takes on the difficult stuff.

For instance, if you have a department without administrative support, hiring someone to do the admin tasks will take the pressure off.

Of course, this solution costs money, but you know what costs more money? Turnover.

If your remaining employees feel overworked, they are likely to start looking for a new job, and if they find one, they'll leave, and then you'll be down two employees and have the costs of hiring and training someone new.

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Don't try to save money in a way that results in spending more money.

A leave of absence doesn't have to destroy the department. Just plan and prepare and then go forth and conquer.

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Suzanne Lucas Member
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate HR where she hired, fired, managed the numbers and double-checked with the lawyers. She now writes about how to make your business a success and your employees happy. Send her an email at