In Sickness and in Health

Eric Stutzman

A friend of mine was recently fired because he had to take time off for a medical procedure. He originally thought he would be off for three days, but after the procedure the doctor advised him that he shouldn’t work for two weeks. This may sound extreme (and it is), but when he explained his situation to his boss, he was fired. Aside from whether his boss’s response was actually legal or not, it was certainly a shortsighted move that resulted in negative consequences for both my friend and the employer.

Consider the message this boss sent to the rest of the employees: If you need time off – if you are affected adversely by life’s events – then you are in danger of losing your job. The boss’s response shows they value short-term productivity more than the people that work for them. If your boss was like this, would you feel comfortable telling them the truth about why you need time off?

In order to have healthy and productive workplaces, we can’t expect people to perform at high levels when they are experiencing difficult times in their lives. We will all inevitably experience emotional and physical highs and lows in our lives that result in us needing to take time away from our workplaces – sometimes only for a few hours, but occasionally for much longer periods. We need to create workplaces that both allow for these highs and lows and support the person in getting back to the workplace as soon as is reasonably possible.

Leadership sets the tone for responding to requests for time away.

Recently in our organization, one colleague got married, while another needed to travel for a funeral and wake that lasted several days. Some of us are supporting aging parents, and one person is caring for a terminally ill family member. And some of us are parents, which means we may need to be at home to take care of our children if they get sick.

It’s hard when someone needs to leave for personal or medical matters, but we all understand why the time off is necessary. That is why we do what we can to pitch in and cover for each other when someone needs some time away – we all know that we may require the same support in the future. As a leader, I know that things happen throughout our lives that are outside of our control, and I want my staff to feel supported during these times rather than confined by their work environment.

Leadership sets the tone for responding to requests for time away. In our organization, we want our leadership responses to build trust and loyalty, so we intentionally focus on three areas when faced with a request for time off.

Show Understanding

When an employee tells a manager that they need time off for a life event, our first response should be to focus on what this means for them. There will be ample time to consider the impact on the workplace later – use the moment to either celebrate or show empathy. This communicates that the person matters more than a temporary inconvenience at work. When people know that they matter and are cared for, it leads to loyalty, trust, and, we believe, a quicker return to work.

When an employee tells a manager that they need time off for a life event, our first response should be to focus on what this means for them.

Demonstrate Care

When someone is facing a significant challenge or when they celebrate a life event like a marriage or birth, we try to commemorate it. We do this through simple acts like pitching in some money to provide a meal, sending cards and flowers, or celebrating with a staff potluck and gifts. These small acts of recognition come from both the organization itself and from us as individuals – they mean something because they are physical reminders that we care.

Provide Flexibility

We know that people desire and sometimes need flexibility, so we have made it possible to bank extra time for attending to life’s smaller events like medical appointments and school programs. We also provide a short- and long-term disability policy so that if someone runs out of leave time, they can access insurance. In some cases, we have even provided work tools such as a laptop so an employee can work remotely when they need to leave town.

When we respond to requests for time off with these elements in mind, we create an atmosphere where people know they are valued. This leads to expressions of gratitude toward the organization rather than resentment. Treating employees as people first creates the conditions for a great place to work.

When we respond to requests for time off with these elements in mind, we create an atmosphere where people know they are valued.

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Author: Eric Stutzman
CEO, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, Don’t Blame the Lettuce: Insights to Help You Grow as a Leader and Nurture Your Workplace CultureEric is also the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. These books are available on our website.

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