Dealing with sick employees in the right way

Employees get sick and are absent. This is a challenge for both supervisors and colleagues. We show two case studies - and how you as a manager can create a good working environment when employees are absent.

Mavie editorial team07/09/2023

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If employees are absent for a longer period of time due to illness, managers are quickly faced with the question: How do I behave correctly? How do I ensure that my team neither becomes overwhelmed nor frustrated? These two case studies show how the reintegration of sick employees works and how you can deal with the issue of illness in the workplace.

Case study 1: Returning after a long illness in steps

Mr. M. was on sick leave for four months. During this time, his supervisor distributed tasks differently: some work was taken on by colleagues, others could be postponed or outsourced. Mr. M. is a popular employee and both his superior and his colleagues have wished him well. Now he wants to start working again. It is clear to himself, but also to his superiors, that he will not be able to return to full performance immediately. So a plan is drawn up together: Mr. M. should first start a so-called “reintegration part-time” period. Reduced working hours of 20 hours per week are agreed for five months. The tasks are also being discussed again: Mr. M. takes over those parts of his previous work that are not considered time-critical. There are also weekly consultations with his superior to see how well Mr. M. is coping and whether he needs further help.

Case study 2: Absences due to simulated illness

With her short but frequent sick leaves, Ms. Z. pushes her colleagues to the limits because no alternative solution can be found. Her colleague, Ms. A., suspects that illness is not always the cause of the absences. Because of the feeling of being betrayed and taken advantage of by Ms. Z., Ms. A. comes to work increasingly disgruntled and therefore less motivated. A superior of Ms. Z. asks her for an interview. He tells her about his worries about her health and concerns about how things will continue due to the overload of other colleagues. In several meetings, the supervisor tries to obtain a realistic assessment of Ms. Z.'s possible performance. He also clarifies whether the company can help Ms. Z. become healthier.

6 tips for managers

The following 6 tips will help managers and the team community make it easier for colleagues to reintegrate after illness or absence:

Promote respectful interaction after an illness
If an employee returns to work after illness, he or she takes responsibility for themselves. This means that the decision to work was made by the individual. Extraordinary consideration is therefore neither appropriate nor necessary. The returning person must be treated with the same respect and kindness as all other employees.

Write down re-entry agreements 
Before returning to work after a long period of absence, both sides - the employee and the supervisor - should clarify: What is needed for reintegration? Is there coaching to help you deal with stress better? Do regular appointments with occupational health professionals have to be made? Does it help to structure your work differently? These jointly agreed measures can be modified again and again.

Obtain regular feedback upon reintegration
Arrange regular meetings to see how the employee is doing after being reintegrated into the workplace and whether the agreed measures are still effective.

After illness: work assessment using a point scale
Statements like “It’s getting better / It’s gotten worse again” are not meaningful enough as feedback. In order to better assess how reintegration into the workplace is actually going and what challenges the employee is facing, it can make sense to query the status quo using a scale of 1 to 10. (10: My work is easy for me and I enjoy it; 1: I hardly know how to manage my work.) This allows us to assess the situation more objectively.

Arrange possible work support promptly
Relapses can always occur. If work performance deteriorates or the employee can no longer complete the tasks, support should be sought. Ideally, there is a plan B and C in order to be able to govern quickly and not to burden the rest of the team more than necessary.

Evaluate team mood after prolonged absences
When there is a particular focus on one person, the well-being of the entire group can sometimes take a back seat. Supervisors should therefore also regularly obtain a brief mood assessment from the team. 

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