As a human being with a life outside the office, at some point in your career you may find yourself needing to take a leave of absence from work. Whether you’re experiencing complications from an ongoing medical issue, welcoming a new child into your family, or taking advantage of your company’s sabbatical policy, going on planned leave can be both a challenging and rewarding experience.
While every situation is different and there’s no way to predict all the possible complications that might arise, knowing the basics of what to expect and how to prepare for a planned leave can make the process much smoother.
We’ve got a few ideas to help you make the experience of taking a leave from–and coming back to–work as painless as possible.
Before Going on Planned Leave
Do Your Research
Though it might seem fairly straightforward in theory, leave is actually a complex, constantly evolving issue.
Some leave is mandatory (required by federal, state, and/or local law and includes some job protections), some is voluntary (not required by law and granted at the discretion of the company). Some leave is paid, some isn’t. Rules surrounding the different types and lengths of leave can vary widely from state to state, city to city, and company to company, so it’s essential you do some preliminary research before making any major decisions.
Start by getting familiar with applicable federal, state, and local laws to see what types of planned leave, if any, you’re eligible for, and what job protections they might provide. Then, review your company’s specific leave policies, and see if they’re offering any related benefits beyond the minimum required by law.
A few federal leave laws to get you started:
Your starter guide on creating an employee handbook.
Talk to HR
Not sure if you meet the eligibility requirements for a certain type of planned leave? Talk to HR.
Want to better understand whether your benefits coverage will continue while you’re out of the office? Talk to HR.
Ready to set the leave-taking process in motion? Talk to HR.
Educating yourself about the basics of leave is important, but you’re still going to need the guidance of an HR professional at your company (or the person at your company that manages HR) to work out the details.
Once you’ve determined what type of planned leave you’re taking, you’ll likely be asked to fill out and submit an official request for leave form. Depending on the situation, you might also be required to provide a note from your doctor substantiating your condition for medically necessary leave.
Related article: LMNOP...QLE? Your Quick Guide to Qualifying Life Events
Make a Plan
Once your request for leave has been granted, let your manager know about it as soon as possible. The sooner you’re able to start planning, the easier the transition will likely be for everyone–especially if you’re going to be out for more than a few days.
If you’re going on a longer leave of absence, you’ll need to do more to prepare. Review all your current responsibilities, tasks, and projects, and any other loose ends that may need to be covered while you’re out.
If you can, help your manager determine which of your coworkers might be best suited to take over certain responsibilities, and make sure they have the information and context they need to complete the work while you’re out. It’s always best to err on the side of too much information rather than too little.
A few other things to consider while preparing for a long leave:
If you regularly work with outside vendors/partners, if appropriate, consider letting them know that you’re going on leave and who to reach out to in your absence.
Decide what level of communication you’re comfortable with while you’re out, and share that with your manager/team.
Clear out your email inbox and organize your desk space. It might sound frivolous now, but you’ll definitely thank yourself when you return to work.
"Build connections with other employees who've also experienced an extended leave or paternity leave. Coming back to work isn't easy and it's helpful to have work friends who've been through a similar experience." -Katherine Rowe, Manager, Brand Design at Justworks
When Coming Back From Leave
Explore Your Options
Even if you intended to return to work full-steam following the end of your leave period, once the date actually approaches you might find yourself waffling a bit. Many people struggle with the prospect of diving back into a 40+ hour work week after being out of the office for so long–the good news is: you’re not alone, and there might be options available to make the transition easier.
If the thought of jumping right into your pre-leave schedule fills you with dread, talk to your manager and HR about the possibility of easing back into office life with a temporary alternative arrangement.
Maybe you could work remotely for a few weeks before coming back into the office, or try working part-time for a month or two and slowly ramping up your weekly hours–there are a number of ways to make the transition back from leave feel less jarring, so don’t assume it’s an all-or-nothing choice.
Related Article: Taking Time to Reset: The Mental Benefits of a Sabbatical
Manage Your Expectations
Ideally, we’d all love to depart for leave on great terms and have things immediately go back to normal the second we return, but it’s important to keep your expectations in check.
You might come back and find that one of your long-term projects got handed off to a teammate and won’t be assigned back to you, or that your co-workers’ response to your return is less enthusiastic than you’d hoped for–mentally preparing yourself for a less-than-ideal situation can help lessen any potential issues when you return to work.
That said, you do have rights. Under certain leave laws (like the FMLA or the ADA, for example) your employer is not allowed to retaliate against you for taking protected leave. If you find that so much responsibility has been taken away from you that you have little to do, or that you’ve been given so much work you’re completely overwhelmed and on the brink of quitting, that may be considered a form of unlawful retaliation.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
Ultimately, the person who’s most affected by your leave of absence is you. There’s a good chance you’ve just experienced a major life milestone, and navigating this new landscape can be emotionally draining.
As you get back to life in the office, above all else, pay attention to and respect your own mental and physical health. Be kind to yourself, and remember that it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling–whether its lack of motivation for work you were previously excited about, resentment over having to leave your newborn child at home, or guilt that you’re excited to get back to the office after a long period spent caring for a family member.
If you’re really struggling to deal with the transition back to work and things aren’t getting easier over time, ask for help. Schedule an appointment with a therapist, speak honestly about your feelings with someone you trust, and see what mental health resources are available through your workplace.
Even small changes can make a big difference, so don’t be afraid to do whatever you need to do to get through the day.
This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.