How to Cope When Employees Are on Leave

By Eric Cormier

Eric Cormier
Nonprofits may be especially hit hard when an employee must take a leave of absence due to pregnancy, illness, or to care for a loved one, but organizations can take practical steps to mitigate the impact.

Sometimes the need to take leave is expected, as in the case of a pregnancy. At other times, it comes without warning, as in the case of a medical emergency, and it is unclear how long the employee may need to be away from the office.

Whatever the reason, the departure of a valued employee, even for a month or two, can have major ramifications. Budgetary constraints may preclude the organization from hiring a temporary worker to cover the absent employee’s responsibilities. Even if the money is available, the employee’s job may be highly specialized and, therefore, difficult to fill.

Many nonprofits may have generous sick banks, a benefit often given to compensate for less competitive salaries, which can mean that an employee has earned not only weeks, but months off in the event of an illness.

Regardless of the reason for the needed leave, communication is key. Employees should be forthcoming about how much time they expect to be away from work, so their employer can make appropriate work plans during their absence.

Preparing for an Employee’s Leave

When the leave is expected, the executive director should meet with the employee well in advance of the leave to discuss the approximate dates the employee expects to be out of the office, what projects he or she is currently working on, and how the employee can provide guidelines for others who may take over the work during the employee’s absence.

Sometimes, colleagues within the organization will be able to cover many of the tasks of the employee taking leave. In this case, cross training should be conducted, so those covering the work can learn what to do and ask questions of the employee before his or her departure.

Cross training is a smart business decision, regardless of whether or not an organization knows an individual is going on leave. If the leave is unexpected, the organization can take comfort in knowing that day-to-day operations will not falter.

Communication with the employee while he or she is on leave is just as important as communication before the leave starts. Oftentimes, unexpected complications may extend the time an employee is on leave. For example, a doctor may recommend additional bed rest or therapy before the employee returns to work. In this case, the employer should request a doctor’s note from the employee.

Preparing for an Employee’s Return

In some instances, there may be a need for an accommodation to help the employee return to work. If so, the employer should take steps to determine whether and what type of an accommodation is needed to help the employee accomplish his or her essential job functions. Examples of an accommodation may be allowing the employee to work from home or work part-time, so that he or she can attend therapy and get additional rest. Open discussion is an important step that should be taken if the need for an accommodation is requested.

When an employee has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it is important to show sensitivity and care. Once again, open communication between both parties will provide insights, so the organization and the employee have the information they need to make a knowledgeable decision about next steps.

There are times when an employee may be unable to return to work and fulfill his or her duties, and the organization will decide to terminate him or her. Such a decision may leave an employee feeling penalized for his or her absence. In this situation, it is advisable for an organization to discuss the matter with a human resources professional or an employment attorney.

Employee leaves can raise concerns. By engaging with the employee, setting a clear course of action, and keeping communication open before, during, and after the leave, nonprofits can weather an employee’s leave, while maintaining a positive, productive workplace.

Eric Cormier is a human resources specialist in the Boston office of Insperity, a national provider of human resources and business performance solutions, whose clients include a variety of nonprofit organizations. Call 800-465-3800 or visit

October 2014