This is an easy time of year to remember to give thanks. With all the festivities of the holiday season, we don’t have to try that hard to show gratitude and be empathetic to others’ situations when things are going well. However, have you paused to reflect on how you demonstrate empathy during other times of the year?
The privilege to always show empathy and gratitude to others has never been more clear for me…as over the past couple of weeks I have cared for a close family member recovering from a challenging life event. I’ve been humbled and overwhelmed by the numerous demonstrations of support received from family and friends…and co-workers.
Empathy in the workplace is worth serious conversation, as the degree to which it is championed varies significantly from one organization to the next. However, because we spend so much of our lives in the workplace, our organizations are one of the best venues to grow our empathy practices. One of the most practical applications of this opportunity is when employees must take a leave of absence due to their own health condition or to care for a family member.
In this blog, I’ll cover nine ways that employers may demonstrate empathy when employees take a leave of absence from work.
1 – Embrace a growth mindset
If your organization hasn’t traditionally gone above and beyond to empathize with employees who require leave, don’t fret. Your organizational capacity for empathy can improve if you and your company can create the space for that practice.
I believe most people want to be compassionate, but often things unintentionally get in the way. People become distracted with being busy to the point that they are not attuned to opportunities to align with others’ needs and make a meaningful impact. Create time to intentionally focus on empathy toward others throughout the month.
2 – Be reassuring and consistent
When an employee takes a leave of absence, it can be based on circumstances that were unanticipated. The potentially unknown duration for a leave of absence may create stress for an employee. Nevertheless, the situation does offer an opportunity for your organization to be reassuring as well as consistent with communication about leave benefits. This helps to build a foundation for trust and emotional safety from the perspective of the employee.
3 – Be specific with your offer
I’m the type of person that never wants to appear as if I am taking advantage of others by saying “yes” to non-specific offers of help. For example, I politely thank someone who says “let me know if you need anything” without ever seeking his assistance…because it may be too overwhelming to think about what that assistance would be…and whether it would be too big of an ask for that individual.
However, lately I’ve learned to say “yes,” and it’s been easier when people offer specific ways they can help. A gesture may be as simple as offering to clear a co-worker’s calendar on his behalf when he is called away to care for a loved one; or, offering to deliver a care package to get a teammate through hard times.
By articulating a tangible offer, I think it is easier for the beneficiary of the help to say “yes” because you take away a potentially distracting decision from him–that is, the decision of what type of help to seek. These gestures cut through the stress and anxiety experienced by your impacted co-worker and help him persevere. They are a partial roadmap in an uncertain time and help alleviate the burden of yet another decision.
4 – Utilize communication templates for efficiency
Have a template ready to quickly send leave administration paperwork to an affected employee when the need arises. Use technology (everything from an HRIS to a free Trello board) to create and manage leave-related touchpoints…think of it as employee onboarding for the leave process.
Make your content consistent, yet approachable, and answer questions like those recommended by Jellyvision:
- How much time can I take off?
- Will I be paid, and if so, how much?
- Is my job safe…or should I worry?
Also, match and mirror the employee in terms of her preferred communication mode (e.g. email, phone, text, etc.). Be mindful of employee preferences when it comes to in-person communications during a difficult stretch. For example, know whether she would be comforted by a friendly hug or view it as an encroachment on her personal space.
5 – Designate a single point of contact
Have your HR representative ask the employee if he wishes for any updates to be shared with concerned co-workers. With the employee’s consent, ask him if he prefers a single point of contact for updates or if he is okay with other teammates reaching out to check in. Otherwise, he may find himself struggling to keep up with 50 text messages from concerned co-workers all at once.
Even if a person is active on social media with what is happening in his life, and connected to co-workers on that network, he may still appreciate a single person for communication in the workplace.
6 – Make it easy for others to help
As long as the employee has consented to the employer allowing others within the organization to help, the company can organize outreach efforts on behalf of the employee taking leave. For example, consider
- allowing other employees to donate PTO or sick time,
- using a site such as takethemameal.com to set up a meal sign-up sheet, or
- organizing a sign-up sheet to ensure that a periodic visitor helps to keep the employee’s spirits up.
7 – Choose empathy rather than sympathy
While empathy and sympathy are closely related, empathy goes a bit further to put yourself in the shoes of a person experiencing an event. Conversely, sympathetic gestures often begin with a statement such as “at least you don’t have X going on.” While the intent of sympathy may be to put rose-colored glasses on a tough situation, it may not do anything to help someone through a rough spot. However, finding common ground through a similar shared experience and letting an employee know you that you’re available to provide support may prove more effective.
Truly listen to what an employee needs in a challenging moment. And, if you don’t have amazing advice, just tell her you hear her and are there to help. Active listening means you don’t think about your next statement before the other person is finished speaking. Rather, you pause and then restate what she said, and ask questions to hone in on how you can be of assistance.
8 – Train your managers
Not only is it good form for your managers to be sensitive to the emotional, physical and social stresses an employee may experience related to a leave of absence, but it’s also sound business practice to make sure your managers have undergone training to handle leave administration appropriately.
Without training, employers leave themselves open to liability resulting from “foolish” statements by uninformed managers, according to Jeff Nowak in this SHRM article.
9 – Be available for the long haul
It’s easy for an organization to be helpful in the early days of an employee’s challenge, but make sure you create triggers to check in with the employee when the initial shock has worn off, too. Recovery from challenging life events takes time and an employee’s communication and tangible needs may evolve throughout that process. For example, make it easy for an employee to understand what is necessary to extend a short term disability claim, or to see what accommodations are needed in order to return to work more quickly.
When was the last time you considered how “human” your company’s human resources efforts are when it comes to assisting teammates with challenging circumstances? In this season of Thanksgiving, let’s re-examine what we’re doing in the workplace to empathize with our employees’ life situations and lift them up when they need support.