Unplanned absences

When an employee has to take an unplanned leave, there can be a ripple effect through the rest of the staff

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Does your organization expect the unexpected? Does it plan for the unforeseeable?

By definition, you can never know when something unexpected is coming. But it is possible to have a plan in place when something happens that affects staffing and distribution of work. But if it’s not a well-thought out plan, it can cause even more trouble, such as when an employee has to take an unexpected leave and someone has to take on those duties.

When employees take official leaves of absence to which they are entitled, most of them require a certain amount of notice that allows the employer to prepare — such has training replacements or planning out the redistribution of work. But if an employee has to suddenly take an unexpected leave — such as a medical leave due to a serious illness or injury — the employer is faced with a hole in its staff that may not be easy to fill on short notice.

It’s a good idea to have other employees be familiar with the duties and responsibilities of co-workers so they can cover for each other, at least in the short term. But if the absence is open-ended and indefinite, that could be more difficult to cover. If the employee on medical leave plans to come back but doesn’t know when, it’s not easy to hire a replacement unless it looks like the absence will be long-term. But if the duties are redistributed to existing employees, that could put more of a burden on them if it’s more than a short-term temporary arrangement.

When the duties and responsibilities of an employee taking an unexpected leave are given to others, there is also a concern that the others may feel it’s too much of a burden and changes the nature of their jobs. If there’s no end date in sight for this type of change, the spectre of constructive dismissal could raise its ugly head.

If an employee has to take off work indefinitely due to illness or injury and that employee’s job is given to others to do on top of their own, could this be considered constructive dismissal? The work could be similar, and it makes sense that employees in the same department or group would take it on, but if it’s added on top of their own duties, could the increase in the amount of work be considered a fundamental change in employment? Could the expectation of working overtime when it hasn’t been done before be a change, even if the added work is similar?

It’s never a good thing when an employee has to take a leave of absence suddenly if they get sick or injured, and if the employer’s only plan is to have other employees assume all the responsibilities, it may not be good for the remaining employees either. Good planning for such circumstances will not only help productivity, but could also avoid an unhappy work environment and potential legal trouble.

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