Organizational Wellness

HR’s Guide to an Employee Leave of Absence

May 11, 2023
Last Updated Jun 1, 2023

As a human resources professional, you likely know managing employee leaves of absence can be complex. With so many different categories, varying lengths, and a myriad of regulations, it's important to understand the ins and outs of leaves of absence so all employees are treated equally. 

And, beyond matters of fairness, having an effective leave policy can be a tactical part of your company’s talent strategy. Supporting employees when they need time away shows you prioritize their health and wellbeing, which is a high-priority for today’s workers. 

Here’s what you need to know about leave — from the categories to the regulations to the best practices — to build a policy that benefits your organization and workforce.

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Categories and Types of Employee Leave

There are two main leave of absence (LOA) categories: mandatory and voluntary. Within each group, there are different types of leave that an employee can take.

Mandatory leaves of absence are situations when the employee has a right to take leave, per federal standards. This type of leave is often addressed by the The Family and Medical Leave Act and The Americans With Disabilities Act (which are discussed specifically in the next section). Life situations where an employer may be required to provide leave include: 

  • Parental leave (including the birth of a child and adoption or foster care placement).
  • Caring for a sick immediate family member.
  • Military leave (for both military service members and caregivers).
  • Serious health conditions and long-term disability. 

A voluntary leave of absence is an employee benefit or perk. There are no federal regulations for employers to follow for this type of leave. If you offer voluntary leave to employees, you can do so on a paid or unpaid basis. Common types of voluntary LOAs are:

  • Sabbaticals
  • Bereavement leave
  • Extended vacations

Which Policies in The U.S. Cover Leaves of Absence?

There are two federal policies in the U.S. that address mandatory leave of absence. If the employee’s LOA falls under a qualifying reason, companies have to consider and abide by these regulations.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

FMLA is a federal law that guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave for eligible employees taking time off for a qualifying reason. Its eligibility criteria requires that employees have:

  • Worked for their current employer for at least 12 months.
  • Worked in a location where the company has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.
  • Worked at least 1,250 hours over the last 12-month period.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Under the ADA, employers must offer reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. As part of reasonable accommodations, an employer can offer unpaid leave to an employee with a qualifying disability. The "reasonable accommodation" requirement is customizable on purpose — it's meant to allow employers to come up with personalized solutions, like an LOA, that work for both the employer and the employee.

The ADA requires employers to consider an LOA as a reasonable accommodation in certain situations, such as:

  • The employer doesn’t offer leave as an employee benefit — usually separate from paid time off (PTO).
  • The employee has already exhausted the company’s leave policy.
  • The employee doesn’t qualify for the company’s leave policy. 

Can Companies Offer Their Own Leave of Absence Policy?

Yes, businesses can establish their own company policy for LOAs to go beyond the FMLA and ADA requirements. 

While FMLA and ADA provide regulations for unpaid leaves of absence, you can create company-specific leave policies that do compensate employees. For example, many companies opt to pay their employees who take parental leave or medical leave, even though it's not required by FMLA. Or a company can choose to provide employees with an extended LOA benefit that goes beyond the 12 weeks that FMLA requires. 

Offering these supplemental leave benefits to employees can show them that you value their wellbeing. When employees don't have to stress about compensation or healthcare while they're sick or caring for a loved one, they’re also more likely to be able to focus on their work instead of their worries.

Best Practices for Handling Employees on Leave of Absence

Taking a leave of absence can be stressful for employees. They may have questions or concerns about their healthcare coverage or compensation while they're out. As an HR representative, you can offer employees support before, during, and after their leave and help give them peace of mind.

Help Employees Prepare for Leave

When helping employees prepare to take an LOA, employers should provide them with the information and resources they need. This could include an employee handbook outlining the leave policy, a list of available benefits while on leave, and who to contact in the HR department if they have any questions while they're away.

You can also help them get coverage for their role or tasks while they'll be away, if possible. This coverage could include finding a temporary replacement, having another team member pick up their responsibilities, or even providing job-sharing opportunities for other employees.

Support Employees While They’re On Leave

While an employee is out on leave, you can support them by answering questions that arise, such as inquiries about health insurance or other leave benefits. Your organization can also provide additional support, such as meal deliveries, that let your employee know you care about their wellbeing during a potentially difficult time. The occasional communication to check in on them and keep them in the loop can also be appreciated.

Offer Assistance to Employees During Their Transition Back to Work

Try to ensure that the employee's job responsibilities have been modified to account for any changes in their abilities due to health reasons. If possible, consider allowing flexible hours or adjusted schedules to accommodate any new medical appointments due to the employee’s condition.

Even if your returning employee doesn’t need medical accommodations, it's still helpful to ramp them up over a period of time rather than giving them their full workload immediately upon return. When they can take their time getting back to work, it's apt to be easier for them to make the transition. It's important to remember that each employee's situation is unique and may require special arrangements as needed.

Leave Benefits Can Help Support Your Employees

Leave benefits can demonstrate your commitment to prioritizing employee health and wellbeing. By offering supplemental leave benefits and providing employee support before, during, and after an LOA, you can show your employees how much you value them.

A well-rounded wellness program can complement employee leave benefits and create a holistic approach to supporting employee health and wellbeing. Through wellness programs, you can provide tailored activities to employees that promote healthy lifestyles and reduce stress levels, making it easier for them to return to work after a leave of absence.

If you want to learn more about how a wellness program can boost your employee benefits package, reach out to a Wellhub wellbeing specialist today. 

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Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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