Employers, especially larger ones, develop very sophisticated and creative packages to entice and attract prospective employees. Its clear that extensive efforts have been made to design and create these. However, is the same effort given to ensuring employees are supported in times of need -ie in illness?
When an employee has to take extended time off work due to serious illness, it is a huge shock not only to the employee but also to their family. Suffering or being diagnosed with serious life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or heart diseases are a tumultuous life shock. However, in time, most of those employees will return to work for their employees in some capacity. But the successful reintegration of the employee will in large part, be determined by;
The levels of commitment shown by the employer in understanding and supporting the needs of the employee to enable him/her to return to work
The effectiveness of the care strategy put in place by the employer
Undoubtedly, the quality of care that the employers show towards their sick staff has a major impact on the rate of recovery of the employee.
Whilst there is plenty of material and articles available from a legal, HR and financial perspective, there is virtually nothing from the employee perspective, who has had his/her life turned upside down from the event.
As someone who has been through the process of being off work from serious illness, having suffered 2 heart attacks within 18months whilst working for a large management consulting firm, I would like to redress that balance. In this article, I will outline a framework of what good care looks like to help recuperation and where possible, a successful return to work.
In summary, there are three core aspects to this framework; 1. A comprehensive care strategy 2. A detailed communications plan 3. A pre return work plan
These must be produced with strict adherence to 4 fundamental principles:
Employee focused not process focused
1 Introduce a comprehensive care strategy
This should cover all employee issues throughout his recuperation and return to work journey. For the employee, one of the biggest barriers in his/her recovery is dealing with uncertainty as it causes significant stress and anxiety. They are already dealing with significant health issues which has an inherent level of uncertainty. A comprehensive care strategy will help to ensure uncertainty is removed from all work-related issues for the employee, thereby providing stability and calmness in this area of their life, enabling them to focus on recuperation which should be the sole priority.
As a minimum, the care strategy should include;
Needs assessment of employee; specific requests and needs identified.
Identification of support services required, including specialists such as; mental health practitioners, physiotherapists, etc.
Feedback loop recording the needs, thoughts and concerns of the employee.
Milestone points for review of employee wellbeing.
Key contacts within the firm who will act as a central focus point and review the progress of the strategy. This should include all decision-makers from employers.
Buddy system of employees who have made a successful return to work after a long term illness who can as mentors and support for similarly affected employees.
Return to work plan.
The employer must make an effort to understand the particular issues facing each individual rather than produce a standard approach dictated by predetermined processes. A “one size fits all” approach to employee wellbeing is far too narrow and carries risks of the employer appearing uncaring at best, and incompetent at worst.
The employer must understand that the care should be people-centric NOT process-centric. In larger organisations, particularly where certain HR functions are outsourced, there is a much greater risk of care being seen as impersonal leaving the employee vulnerable, feeling unsupported, frustrated and let down by his employers.
2 Make sure there is a comprehensive communications plan
1 There should be a single point of contact with the employee throughout his absence. This person has a very important role; continuity brings trust and understanding to the employee. It makes a significant difference if the employee knows there is someone at the employers who knows his/her condition and also has a knowledge of the firm's processes so can act as a conduit on behalf of the employee to discuss all aspects of his/her absence and future reintegration. Over time, this relationship becomes more important and is also important from an employer's perspective too - it is much more efficient if one person has a thorough understanding of the employee's situation. Saves repetition and tiresome questioning to the employee over and over again due to lack of cohesion within the firm.
2 There should be an agreed level of communication with the employee.
This might change throughout his/her absence. However, the key principle is that it should be discussed and agreed upon with the employee. This is especially critical when the employee has suffered a major illness/event such as a heart attack. In the beginning, there might be a flurry of communications between the employer and the employee but that soon dissipates. Every person's requirements and needs will be different, hence it is important to discuss the levels of communication required - frequency, type whether it's email, text or call, and who should be contacted.
3 Make the communication meaningful Bland emails or calls to the employee only add frustration and irritation to the employee and his/her family. Perhaps even worse though, especially during the early stages of severe illness is radio silence. From personal experience, it gave me the impression the firm did not care or show any empathy with what had happened to me which I found to be very distressing leaving me feeling isolated and extremely vulnerable.
An effective level of communication should show empathy with the employee's situation and those of his family and provide reassurance to the employee that his/her employer understands what is happening and offers constructive support to ease the worry and stress that he/she is undoubtedly facing, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the event/ trauma. Be proactive in providing return to work assistance Be mindful of the stress and anxiety facing the employee as he/she attempts to return to work. It is a time of great uncertainty and anxiety for the affected employee. The quality of the support he/she receives will make a huge difference to his/her wellbeing and likely success in the return to work.
If the employee is returning to his previous role, there are standard protocols to follow regarding how a phased return to work should operate, ie ensuring there is a gradual and manageable way for the employee to return to work after a lengthy absence. Key parties to be involved include the occupational health team as well as the senior manager within the business responsible for the employee. These processes are standard and will be comprehensive, particularly for larger organisations. The key point is to ensure the involvement of the employee at all times, not making any assumptions that he/she knows what is happening or how the return to work will happen.
If however, the employee needs to find another role in the business for whatever reasons (as I had to do), then the situation is not as straightforward and requires much more planning and assistance. If the employee has been absent for several years then the employer must be proactive in assisting - this does not merely include providing the employee with a login password and access to the internal job portal which is how I have seen a consultancy describe their "comprehensive" support.
Key aspects of support should as a minimum include:
Assignment of a career advisor preferably with experience of helping employees in similar situations. The careers advisor will be able to understand the employee's capabilities and skill set, the requirements of the employee and understanding of his/her limitations as a result of the illness. The advisor will then be able to use that understanding to advise and highlight opportunities and suitable positions which may be available.
Regular liaison with someone within the business units, as opposed to HR, to help identify opportunities and make introductions where applicable.
Regular feedback between the career advisor and manager within the business unit to assess progress in helping find a new role.
Employer sponsor to provide senior-level support to the employee if the absence has been over a lengthy period, e.g.1 year. Over time the employees’ network will change and shrink as people move to different jobs etc so it would be very helpful for the employee to have an internal sponsor who can guide and provide introductions if applicable.
This support should be proactive at all times, rather than letting the onus of job-seeking fall entirely to the employee. As he/she will have been out of the loop for some time, the employee might not be aware of the latest changes within the business, latest trends, needs etc. Further, his/her internal network might have changed significantly during the period of absence, making it even more important that proactive support is given in finding a new role.
3 Create a return to work plan
Before the employee returns to work, there must be a tailored plan to help ensure a smooth and stress-free return to work as well as to ensure his/her health is monitored effectively after the return to work and thereafter if necessary. Key aspects include:
Pre return to work meeting involving Occupational Health, HR, Senior member of the Employee management team as well as the employee. The employee might also want to involve a family member or work colleague in this meeting which should be facilitated. It is vital to ensure the involvement of employees in setting the agenda for this meeting. Addressing employee pre return concerns as well as concerns after his/her return to work.
Milestone meetings after the return to work to assess progress and ensure no major concerns are ongoing.
Work adjustments that may be required to factor into the role arising from an employee's illness.
The employee's thoughts, concerns, anxieties should be fully factored into all discussions and the plan. Transparency is paramount and will provide significant reassurance to the employee. Uncertainty is a key fear and stressor for the employee which employers need to understand and take steps to mitigate against.
Given the requirements of employment law, the processes of many firms, particularly larger ones have undoubtedly become more detailed and do an effective job of managing their risks from a legal perspective. However, the danger is that there is insufficient attention given to the needs of the employees affected by severe illness and trauma.
The policies have become too process-centric rather than employee-centric, thereby appearing impersonal, uncaring, and lacking empathy. This undoubtedly adds to the stresses of the employee who is probably already struggling to come to terms with this diagnosis and illness. It also will slow down the employee’s recovery and delay his/her return to work which is also counterproductive for the employer.
A rethink is required of the way many employers approach employees on long-term sick leave – a much more humanist and empathetic approach is required. However, how many enlightened employers will take the time to review their approaches and, where necessary, make changes? This requires organisational humility and a growth mindset from its leaders.
Many organisations make wholesome statements about the importance of employee welfare, make grand statements about "putting employees at the heart of the organisation". However, the behaviours of the employer towards its sick and ill employees give the truest insight into the real culture of the organisation.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in my blog and want more information or support, please reach out to me at email@example.com.