8 Tips for Dealing with a Sudden Employee Absence

I recently had an unexpected illness in the family take me completely by surprise.  I couldn’t get to work or work at home for several weeks.  It made me think about how difficult it is for managers when an employee is suddenly out.  What to say?  What to ask? What to tell others? And, what to do about work that is pending?

Here are some tips for managers when faced with a sudden employee absence due to family illness.

1. Show empathy.  Start out by saying “I’m sorry that you’re going through this.”  Depending on the reaction, you might add “I’d like to hear more about what’s going on but I also want to respect your privacy.”

2. Offer to help.  Ask “What can I do to help?”  This is a wonderful gesture if you are willing to help, but might also lead into a work discussion.

3. Practice Active Listening.  Offer to help with work projects over the next few weeks so the employee can concentrate on their loved one.  Involve the employee in planning how their work will be handled.

4. Keep issues confidential.  Ask the employee to what extent he or she wants information shared with others.

5. If employees in the group have expressed an interest in helping, let the employee know and ask for preferences at that time.

6. Be prepared to discuss leave policies as the situation unfolds.  Notify Human Resources of the situation as soon as it appears that FMLA might be requested.

7. Remind the employee that the EAP is available to help.  Offer to call ahead to the EAP to pave the way for the employee.  Mention that the EAP has counselors that can research resources for the future care of his or her loved one.

8. Discuss how often the employee will be in contact with you and set up a follow-up phone call or email for a few days out.

Keeping an open dialog can help you to support an employee going through a difficult time, and help you to avoid potential issues with work.  If you are unsure about what to say or do, contact HR and/or call the EAP for your own support.

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