You may be the line manager of an employee who is living with a long-term condition or illness that requires some time off for the employee to recover to the point they can return to work. It is not easy having people on leave for such long periods of time and you are wondering how will you ensure their work is covered in their absence. You may be wondering what is the right thing to say and how best to handle the situation. Maybe you have spoken to other line managers but are not comfortable with their suggestions or think that something is missing.

What is missing?

What is often missing is a demonstration of authentic empathy with the person affected and their situation. This can pay dividends and lead to the person returning to work with a renewed commitment to their role and employer. The following article demonstrates that. The gentleman featuring in the article experienced depression, had to take two months off, and was able to return to his role full-time.

The hidden crisis of depression at work (published on 9 December 2014 by People Management, the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s magazine for Human Resources and Learning & Development professionals)

(Depression at work is just one example of the financial and non-financial costs of long-term illness to the individual, his/her employer, and the economy.)

Some of the key things the employer did to enable this gentleman to return to work were underpinned by empathy: how the line manager communicated with this employee, the HR procedures, i.e. a phased return to work that was manageable for the gentleman, and the gentleman and HR department using his experience of depression for the benefit of others.

The power of empathy

Empathy is key. It is needed to build relationships and sustain them. Empathy is being able to stand (or sit) before a person, to look at them, to recognise their emotions for what they are without judgement, to provide the space to listen to understand (rather than listen to respond), to imagine yourself in the person’s situation, to bear witness whilst containing your own anxieties. When you do this, you are saying, ‘I see you. I hear you. I recognise you. Your situation is valid. You matter.’

Empathy is an affirmation and validation of the other person. It is not rocket science. And it is very powerful, paying dividends in the workplace as per the words of the gentleman in the article: ‘And I think it’s one of the reasons I am still working at…this sort of thing creates a strong bond.’


Have you ever had this kind of experience with your employer? Or did you have another kind of experience which wasn’t so pleasant? Or are you a line manager who has dealt with employees on long-term sick leave? What did you do that enabled the employee to return to work? What did you learn from the experience? Share by leaving a comment.

And demonstrate authentic empathy to one person today.


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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2014



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