Wondering what makes being employed with a long-term illness work is a common thought among line managers of such employees. Their employee may need to take significant time off for appointments, treatments and recovery.

As a line manager, it’s not easy having people on leave for long periods of time and you wonder how will you ensure their work is covered in their absence. You may also be wondering what is the right thing to say and how best to handle the situation. Maybe you’ve spoken to other line managers but are not comfortable with their suggestions or think that something is missing.

The missing ingredient which makes being employed with a long-term illness work less well

What is often missing in my experience 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.
  • The employee and HR department using his experience of depression for the benefit of others.

The power of empathy is what makes being employed with a long-term illness work

Empathy is key. It’s a cornerstone of trust and needed to build and sustain relationships.

Empathy is being able to stand (or sit) before a person, to look at them and recognise their emotions for what they are without judgement. It requires providing the space to listen to understand rather than listening to respond.

When you’re demonstrating empathy, you can imagine yourself in the person’s situation (or similar situation), whilst continuing to listen attentively AND containing any anxiety you may be feeling. In doing this, you’re non-verbally communicating, ‘I see, hear and recognise you. Your situation is valid. You matter.’

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

The foundation of a strong bond is empathy

And it’s empathy that makes being employed with a long-term illness work.

Over to you

In your experience, what makes being employed with a long-term illness work? Or not? If you’re 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.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2014

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