Taking leaves can be complicated, and often they’re career-limiting

Extended employee absences a challenge employers need to tackle head on
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/01/2017

Fresh out of school, in one of my first jobs, I ran into a senior human resources professional in the lunchroom. We were discussing a colleague who had recently gone on a stress leave, and I’ll never forget what she said to me.

“Never do that. If you take time off for stress, it’s a career-killer. You won’t get promoted and you may even be one of the first ones to be let go. It’s just not worth it.”

That was the late 1990s, and the thinking hasn’t changed much in the last two decades. It’s not just mental health-related leaves that may be frowned upon. Any event that takes you out of the workplace has the potential to be career-limiting.

I was reminded of that last month with a headline I saw in the Toronto Star: “Study highlights barriers faced by police officers who become mothers.”

Essentially, Canadian researchers are finding that cops who become pregnant are treated as if they are disabled. The moment they tell their bosses they’re expecting, they are transferred to police duties that are typically reserved for officers on the disability list.

Time for a bit of honesty: If I had the most stripes on my shoulders at the precinct, I’d probably do the same thing. Not from a lack of respect for the officer and her skills, but out of an abundance of caution.

For me, it’s more of a hypothetical situation — the jobs in my purview mostly involve desk work that can be done without an iota of restriction.

A couple of years ago, we sent one of our editors on assignment for a story for Canadian Occupational Safety magazine. It involved her descending into a mine shaft. If this editor had been pregnant, I undoubtedly would have had reservations. I wouldn’t want to put that person, and her unborn child, at risk.

Perhaps that’s a problem. In an era of risk management, and ensuring the safety of workers, the instinct is to act out of an abundance of caution. Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for all employees.

I can’t think of many restrictions for a person with a desk job, but policing can have all kinds of dangerous tasks that should be taken into account.

Erring on the side of caution is always going to feel like the right thing to do. But it’s also important to work with the employee, find out directly from her what the restrictions are and what she feels comfortable doing.

It seems impossible to ask a woman who is eight months pregnant to conduct traffic stops and chase bad guys, but there might be middle ground. So it’s worth doing the legwork, for both sides, to figure out the tasks that would take advantage of her skills while accommodating the reality of her condition. That’s true of cops and it’s true of every single employee under your roof.

When someone returns following a leave, it can be awkward for all parties. Taking 12 months off to raise a child can have unintended consequences.

“Often, after having to prove themselves all the way along, they lose ground when they announce their pregnancies, and sometimes they don’t regain it after they come back from their maternity leave,” said Debra Langan, an associate professor of criminology at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., in a Toronto Star interview.

In the vast majority of cases, this isn’t a malicious plan on the part of the employer, manager or co-workers. It’s the simple fact that, over the course of year, things can change drastically. If you’re not around to witness the evolution, and experience it, it’s hardly surprising that there can be a struggle to catch up. As a result, a returning employee can be left in the dust.

But that doesn’t mean we shrug our shoulders, condone it and move on. Instead, it’s a challenge smart employers need to tackle head on. No matter what type of leave a worker is returning from, it’s in management’s best interests to ensure the return goes smoothly.

Managers can shake their heads, sigh and complain about what a pain it is — but it is their job to make it work.

An individual coming back to the workplace needs help to reacclimatize. That means providing a welcoming environment, teaming her up with a buddy who can walk her through key changes in personnel and process and, yes, it also means empathy and recognition of the changed circumstances.

We can’t expect these workers to hit the ground running, but we can provide them with the runway and support to ensure a smooth transition and to set them — and the company — up for success in the long run.

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