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.
Dr. Evans advises management to be as open as possible about the situation. "There will be curiosity among the team as to why the sick leave occurred, unless the reason is obvious," he said. "It's important for managers to sit down with their team and say, 'Look, so-and-so has a serious condition that prevents him from working for the next little while and we need to all work together to get through this rough patch.'"
Nicole Byres, a lawyer who heads the labour and employment practice group at Clark Wilson LLP in Vancouver, points out that employees don't need to disclose the nature of the condition that requires an extended medical or disability leave - but the law does say that employers are entitled to know how an illness or injury affects a worker's ability to do the job he was hired to do.
Human rights codes in many provinces prohibit employers from denying anyone a job because of a disability.
Ms. Byres said human rights tribunals have also read in the codes an obligation, on the part of the employer, to accommodate a disabled employee, unless doing so would result in a considerable hardship for the company.
"This applies to keeping a job open for the employee as well as making the adjustments necessary for them to be able to work comfortably when they come back," she said.
As to how long an employer needs to keep a job open for a sick or injured worker on extended leave, Ms. Byres said there's no legislated expiry date. She has seen some sick leaves last as long as two years.
"I have had clients who were very small companies where the job in question was a key part of the organization and they just couldn't do without that particular person," she said.
"In the interim they got other people in the company to fill in here and there, and also hired consultants in the meanwhile."
Extra work, extra pay?
It's not unusual for companies to bump up the pay of senior employees who take on part or all of an absent colleague's workload, Mr. Benwick explained.
"Or, in lieu of a pay increase, the company might offer a reward, such as supporting the senior employee in pursuing that master's degree they know he's always wanted."
But in most cases, employees who take on extra work don't get extra pay.
Sometimes, he noted, a company might present the added workload as a "developmental assignment" that will allow the employee to learn new skills - an enticement that hints at the possibility of a job promotion.
"And indeed, this could be a good opportunity for the company to try someone out and to expand the skills within the company," Mr. Benwick said.
"But they have to careful that they're not dangling a carrot just to get the employee to help out," he advised.
"Make it clear that this is an acting role and manage their expectations, otherwise you may end up with an unsatisfied employee who feels they got dumped on and used."
WORKPLACE / FIVE TIPS TO KEEP YOUR CAREER HEALTHY WHILE OFF THE JOB
1. Get organized before you go If you can, prepare a list of everything that needs to be done in your absence, highlighting urgent items. It's also helpful to identify which of your colleagues are familiar with particular projects.
2. Let work know how you are
E-mail or phone once in a while to let your manager and co-workers how you are faring. If you're able, offer to answer any questions they may have about your work.
3. Stay informed
Out of sight doesn't have to be out of mind. Check in regularly with a manager or co-worker to get updates about what's happening at work, including social events.
4. Have a return-to-work plan
As you recover, start thinking about what you can do at work and send your ideas to your manager. This will help your employer develop a plan for easing you back to work.
5. Stay focused on getting better
Above everything else, your efforts should be focused on getting better. The sooner you do this, the sooner you can get back to work.
TIPS FOR FILLING IN
If your manager asks you to step in for a co-worker who is on an extended leave, experts offer the following tips:
Negotiate the work If stepping in means doing the other person's work as well as your own, ask your manager to help you create a manageable workload by relieving you of certain tasks.
Ask for extra compensation If you're not being paid overtime, then ask for more money or some other kind of reward, such as an extra week of vacation that you can take when your absent co-worker returns.
Ask for help If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by the demands of your extra workload, don't be shy about asking for help from your manager and co-workers.
Have a post-assignment debriefing At the end of your interim role, schedule a meeting where you can provide a list of the tasks you accomplished and those you need to pass off to your returning colleague. This is also a good time to sum up the new skills you picked up on the job and get feedback on your performance.
THE MANAGER'S ROLE
If one of your employees needs an extended leave, here are some tips to cope:
Make problem-solving a group effort
Draw up a list of the work that needs to get done and ask your staff how they can help. There's a good chance employees familiar with the absent worker's projects will volunteer to fill in the gaps.
Be alert for signs of stress and fatigue
Employees who assume an absent co-worker's duties may end up getting overworked to the point where they, too, start missing work. Keep a close eye on these workers and make sure they're not taking on more than they can realistically handle.
Make sure your staff know the additional responsibilities they're assuming may be shifted away from them once their colleague returns to work. This is especially important if you're asking a junior employee to take on a more senior interim role.
Stay in touch with your absent employee
Show your concern by checking in with your sick or injured worker, but be careful not to sound as though you're pushing for a premature return to work. Keeping employees who are on leave connected to the workplace has also been shown to speed their return.