We all know what it’s like to have to cover for a co-worker who’s away sick or on urgent leave. It’s not something most of us mind but when the co-worker in question goes on medical leave a lot or is always taking days off at the last minute, it can get annoying.
Whether or not your colleague really needs to take leave is one thing – and it’s easy to resent her if she’s just skiving – but it’s no fun dealing with extra work or having to help this colleague with her tasks until she returns to the office. Long or habitual absences can also disrupt a team’s workflow and affect the integrity of a business.
What’s everyone entitled to?
Everyone on your team should be aware of how much annual leave they’re entitled to and how many sick days they’re entitled to take per year. Julia Ng, a senior executive coach at Executive Coach International, which offers career coaching and leadership training services, says that if your company’s annual and sick leave policies were explained to your team members before they were hired, there should be no excuse for them to argue with you about their entitlements.
In addition, staff should know what constitutes paid and unpaid leave. There should also be guidelines on what’s expected of them, before, during and after their leave of absence, and the consequences of abuse of the leave policies should be spelled out – for example, disciplinary action or termination.
Dealing with employees who abuse the system
If one of your team members is sick or has a personal problem that needs to be dealt with urgently, and she still has available leave, then of course she should be allowed the time off. But occasionally, you may encounter an employee who abuses the system, leaving the rest of the team in the lurch.
“Such employees should have their work performance reviewed,” says Julia. “If you notice that she has a pattern of going on leave whenever there’s a crunch, or on a Friday or Monday to extend the weekend, you can suspect she is avoiding work. Whether legitimate or not, her reasons for being away don’t matter. The point is that she can’t be relied on to show up at work.”
In this case, Julia advises you to address the pattern with the team member as soon as possible, so that the problem can be resolved without having to resort to drastic measures. Doing so may help prevent it from reoccurring, but if it does happen again, the conversation can be referenced.
When discussing the issue with her, be careful not to lash out. You should create a safe space to uncover the real reasons for her taking leave. “You want to build an environment that fosters ownership and responsibility rather than one of suspicion and mistrust,” Julia adds. “In such an environment, people are less likely to abuse the leave system and lie.”
And if she continues to take leave at a rate that you find unacceptable, you should enforce the consequences by letting her know that she might have to be replaced by someone who can commit to regular attendance. Of course, this is at the management’s discretion and you’d also have to consider the employee’s work performance and whether this is a recent problem.
Managing the workloads
To prevent gaps in the workflow when someone calls in sick or has to take leave at the last minute, you should lay down a few rules for your staff.
To begin with, staff should inform the company of their leave duration and be truthful about the purpose of their leave so that the organisation knows how to fully support them, says Julia. If they are dealing with a death of a loved one, or are experiencing a health crisis, for example, then the company can decide if it needs to hire someone to fill in the role temporarily or divide the absent employee’s tasks between other team members in the meantime.
The team member who’s going to be away should then hand over what needs to be done in her absence, including schedules, passwords to access documents, important contacts, and a list of things to be followed up on. If certain tasks can wait until she returns to work, she should make her bosses aware of this, too.
“In this context, it’s also good practice for colleagues to learn the critical or time-sensitive aspects of their teammates’ duties,” says Paul Heng, executive coach, and founder of Next Career Consulting Group, Asia.
“Responsible-enough employees should take it upon themselves to check in with their team when they have a few extra minutes to spare in-between taking care of their personal needs. If they cannot do this, then they should at least make themselves available in case their boss or co-worker needs to get a hold of them urgently,” he adds.
How to prevent resentment in your team
Resentment can set in within the team if a particular member is constantly taking time off, leaving others to cover for her in her absence. The issue here isn’t the sick leave policy; it’s that the employee is being allowed to abuse the policy. And the most effective way to stop this is to deal with the problematic employee.
“Of course, preventive measures are better than having to deal with the repercussions of an employee being always away sick,” says Julia. “For instance, you should stop letting employees take leave that they haven’t earned, so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where an employee ‘owes’ you time. You probably can’t collect on that money if the employee leaves the company before it’s been paid back. If someone needs time off and hasn’t accrued the leave yet, they need to take that day unpaid. And you need to enforce this consistently across the board.”
Julia continues: “Some companies also offer rewards for zero absenteeism, while others offer more annual leave days and fewer sick leave days so that employees don’t have to feign illness to go on leave.
“If an employee worked overtime on a particular day, giving them a day off in-lieu would be fair. Of course, some of these measures could lead to higher costs of running the business, which include overtime pay for other employees, the cost of hiring temps, the cost of missed deadlines and lost sales, and the cost of sinking morale and lower productivity, so they have to be monitored,” she adds.