How should I handle communicating with my employee on short-term disability? Elaine Varelas offers advice

When an employee needs to take short-term medical leave, helping your employees through it may not be easy – but neither is it easy for your employee on leave. There are ways to communicate to both sides, however, that can assist with keeping everyone at ease. Elaine Varelas offers advice.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –

Q: My employee is on short-term disability leave and she doesn’t know when she’ll be cleared for work. Not only is it frustrating to go through temps to fill her position, it’s also been demoralizing for her colleagues who are close with her. Is there something I can do to boost morale for my team?

A: Your initial concerns are two-fold: First, you should consider the employee with short-term disability. She doesn’t know and may not even have an idea when she’ll be cleared to return. In my experience, most employees want to be at work and may push to return too soon. There’s a reason doctors are the ones who clear patients return to work and workers don’t clear themselves. Your second concern is your staffing issue where you are trying to back-fill her job.


It sounds like your employees are also facing these challenges. They care about their colleague, which is a positive (and not always the case). They may want regular information from her or about her. You may have a conversation with her and ask her for some kind of non-specific message she would like to send to her colleagues without disclosing confidential information. “I’m doing well and miss you,” is a reasonable message for her to send. “Beautiful weekend, thinking of you all, hope you enjoyed it.” Vague and thoughtful, positive messages that don’t convey anything about her medical situation. You can work with her to find a way to communicate with the team about this – and you should be the one relaying the messages as her manager, unless she has chosen a colleague to communicate with and offer messages to the team.

Her colleagues should not be reaching out to her. They can send cards, but they should do nothing that requires a response, and especially not suggesting things like, “Let’s go to lunch,” or, “Come back now – no one else can do your work.” Again, in situations like this, people may think they’re being thoughtful, but the message can add unintentional pressure and nothing that warrants a response or puts any pressure on her should be extended her way. That’s why sending cards, letters, or notes are typically the preferred method for sending greetings; an email (unless it’s a graphic card) almost always demands a response, intentionally or not, and it’s never appropriate pressure to add to someone on leave.


In terms of the challenge of filling the position, your job as the manager is to work closely with the temp and the staff to ensure they’re getting the information and the support they need. Hire a temp with an open end-date if need be, and don’t feel the need to inform your employee on leave of the challenges of filling her shoes, or the issues surrounding having a temp. These are the challenges of the manager. The employee’s challenge is to heal.