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Disability Leave: Helping Members Navigate Leave for Optimal Recovery

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg | Aug 10, 2020

Members who need to take time off work for disability leave may face a number of challenges, both physical and mental. After an illness, major surgery or accident, a long recovery period can feel suffocating. Workers may feel frustrated at their lack of mobility, anxious that they're unable to work and disconnected from others as they stay at home to recuperate.

As a union leader, here are five ways you can support members undergoing short-term disability leave so that they're able to return to work healthier and happier.

1. Check In, But Not Too Much

To help those on disability leave feel connected with fellow members and their work, reach out periodically to see how they're doing. When you call, email or even text, make it clear that you have no expectations — you just want to see how they're doing and how you can help. Know that it's generally okay for an employer to contact employees on short-term disability leave, but the Society for Human Resource Management points out that asking them to do work can be seen as interference and is potentially illegal.

2. Offer Practical Help and Resources

Reach out with compassion and specific resources. You might help coordinate fellow members in delivering prepared meals to the worker on leave, for instance, or send get well notes with a gift card to a local grocery store or restaurant. Some members on leave may also welcome work-related resources — including articles, trainings or other forms of continuing education — that keep their skills sharp while they're away. Some might be too tired or sick, however, so whatever you offer, be clear that it's not mandatory.

3. Educate Members on Available Resources

To help members make the most of their benefits while on leave, make sure they're aware of all the options available to them. Members should fully understand whether their health insurance plan may cover services like physical therapy. Telemedicine therapy can help members stuck at home who need to reach out for medical advice or for help with anxiety or depression. Stress, too, the importance of preventive care so that members return to work feeling as healthy as possible.

4. Collaborate on a Return-to-Work Plan

As a member's return date nears, reach out and build a return-to-work plan together. It should be flexible and take into account any new needs. Members may need a slower start, such as a gradual return to their usual workload or working limited days or hours when they first come back. If the member's role needs to change after they return, spend some time talking through their options.

5. Talk About the Work, Not the Health Issue

Make sure to be there to welcome members back when they return from short-term disability. Realize they might be overwhelmed at first, both physically and mentally. Ask how they're doing, but don't dwell on the health issue. Instead, focus on their work and what else can be done to make it easier for them. Changes might include adapting work equipment or making accommodations like ramps, elevators and parking. Also, make sure the returning member has the latest news on any major changes in the workplace, including new coworkers or updates on policies and procedures.

By staying connected to members and offering them helpful resources while they're on short-term disability leave, you can help ensure that a difficult period goes by as smoothly as possible.