With a successful business in leadership coaching and HR consulting, and a full-time teaching job, Bob Benwick's calendar these days is always busy, busy, busy. But five years ago, the chairman of R.W. Benwick Associates in Vancouver had to stop working completely for a good part of a year.
"I had a stroke and went on long-term disability," recalls Mr. Benwick, 64, who teaches organizational management at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey. "I ended up being gone from work for about five months."
The university quickly found another instructor to take over his classes, and other consultants at his HR business pitched in while he was recuperating. But human resource experts say most other workplaces aren't as lucky when an employee becomes seriously ill or injured and needs to miss work for an extended period.
Unlike leaves that have a specified period, such as parental or educational furloughs, an unexpected, lengthy absence of an employee - whether manager or staff member - can have wide-ranging impact on a business.
It often translates to greater stress in the workplace as other employees shoulder the tasks of their absent co-worker, and there may be uncertainty about who should be doing what. Managers often have to juggle staff to cover for the missing employee - and may have no idea how long the situation will last.
This can be especially difficult for small and medium-sized businesses, but even large corporations face challenges if a key player drops from view. Consider Apple Inc., which has struggled to keep a lid on information about the extended absences of co-founder Steve Jobs, who has suffered from pancreatic cancer and had a liver transplant. His role is so key to Apple's bottom line that when he unexpectedly appeared at the launch of the new iPad this week in San Francisco, its stock jumped $3 within minutes.
The impact of most extended leaves aren't quite as dramatic, of course. But Canadian businesses are feeling the pinch.
"The numbers tell us there's an increase in the incidence and duration of longer-term disability leaves," said Suzanne Paiement, a Montreal-based health and productivity senior consultant at Towers Watson.
In 2009, 6 per cent of full-time Canadian workers were absent from work for all or part of an average week because of illness or disability. In 1999, the figure was 4.6 per cent, Statistics Canada said in a report last June.
Ms. Paiment cites two main factors for the increase: an aging work force and higher levels of stress among workers.
"We've just gone through an economic crisis where a lot of companies downsized, leaving a heavier workload for those who survived the layoffs," she noted.
Charles Evans, founder of the Evans Group management consulting firm in Toronto, points to two typical courses of action for managers if an employee has to be off for an extended period: assign the work to one or more staff members, or hire a temporary replacement. Companies tend to choose the latter when a worker is expected to be absent for more than a month.
"Regardless of what path you choose, there will be added strain on everyone in the office as they try to cope with the extra work and the learning curve from doing someone else's job," said Dr. Evans, an organizational psychologist.
"Even if you bring on a full-time temp, chances are that person's not going to be able to manage the job with the same degree of efficiency as the individual they're filling in for."
The legal issues In many instances, it hard to know when - or even if - the absent employee is coming back to work, adding more strain to the situation, Dr. Evans said.
Privacy laws, for example, prevent employers from discussing the medical condition of the absent worker. This sometimes creates an air of mystery around the person's absence, leading to gossip and sometimes resentment.
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