“I’m Back!”: A Story of Intermittent Leave
Five weeks ago, I was wheels up from Las Vegas at the end of HR Tech. As of Monday, I am back to work with regular office hours, and full speed ahead after DBS (deep brain stimulation) surgery for my Parkinson’s. I am thrilled that the procedure has gone as planned and to be feeling so well. And I did work some while I was out, in part because it made me feel more human and also fought off some of the cabin fever that five weeks away can bring. But it also got me thinking about intermittent leave.
Intermittent leave is one of the hardest challenges in modern workforce management. Schedules, workforce planning, collective bargaining rules, and many other aspects of workforce management work best only in the world of black & white. Are you available or not? Answer Yes or No. But in reality, most human conditions that might require time away from paid work are not black & white. Recovery is not linear. Whether you are dealing with a chronic illness that requires occasional time off (either scheduled or unpredictable time), or a temporary injury that doesn't completely preclude you from working, but does require work-day absences for things like rehab and physical therapy, there is never a straight line from “ouch” to “all better.
My own recent experience followed a non-linear path. Throughout the entire process there were days I was so tired I couldn’t get through an episode of “Friends,” and then I had days when I would write either blogs or four or five pages of my book. Because I am a “one-woman shop,” I didn’t have to worry about pay rates, or schedules, or FMLA tracking. But when I was managing other people, I had direct reports go out on maternity leave or other medical leaves, and I always wanted them to do what they needed to do. I told them, “You may have 12 weeks of leave, but in Week 3 you may need to get out of the house and want to catch up on email for two hours, and in Week 19, you may need some time back at home.” It was hard to implement, however, because how could I really administer, track, or audit that time off?
The same goes for caregivers. In the process of doing all of the testing and preparation for my surgery, the past year has been full of innumerable weekly medical appointments before we ever got to the procedure itself. For many of these I was able to drive myself, but quite a few required someone to take me because of requirements that I be off my medications, or because my husband needed to be a part of the decisions we were making. My husband works for a huge company and has for a long time, so he has plenty of vacation time, and a flexible work-from-home schedule that allowed him to accommodate our medical needs, but, of course, we are among the lucky ones. For many people, the very human reality of nonlinear recovery or the evolving nature of chronic illness is completely at odds with our organizational inability to track and administer intermittent leave.
m.Research’s 2019 Impact Study found that only about a quarter (26%) of organizations even use external solutions for absence and leave management. As more and more companies face the reality of intermittent leave, and what it means to caregivers, the chronically ill, and employees temporarily out-of-commission, organizations will need more help and guidance. When it comes to intermittent leave, many issues will arise, such as how to weigh fairness vs.equity, how to respect the medical privacy laws of employees, and how to ensure performance on an individual, team, and organizational level during absences. If organizations want to attract and keep a diverse workforce, the ability to “be human” at work will need operational support from workforce management solutions to help make intermittent leave easier.