In Sickness and in Health – At Work Too

A friend of mine was recently fired because he had to take time off for a medical procedure. He originally thought he would be off for three days, but after the procedure the doctor advised him that he shouldn’t work for two weeks. When he explained this to his boss, he was fired. Aside from whether his boss’s response was actually legal or not, it was certainly a short-sighted move that negatively affected their workplace’s culture.

Consider the message this boss sent to the rest of the employees: “If you need time off – if you are affected adversely by life’s events – then you are in danger of losing your job.” The boss’s response shows that he values short-term productivity more than he values the people that work for him. If your boss was like this, would you feel comfortable telling them the truth about why you need time off?

In order to have a great workplace, we can’t expect humans to perform like machines. All our lives are complex and highly interconnected with other people’s – we will inevitably experience emotional and physical highs and lows that take us away from our workplaces.

In our organization, one colleague is getting married this month, while another will likely need to travel for a funeral and wake that will last several days. Some of us are supporting aging parents, and one person is caring for a terminally ill spouse. And of course we are in the midst of flu and cold season, so those of us who are parents may need to be at home to take care of our children if they get sick.

As in most things related to workplace culture, leadership sets the tone for responding to requests for time away.

Everyone who is impacted by these various issues plays a very important role in our workplace. And yes, it’s hard when they need to leave for personal or medical matters, but we all understand why the time off is necessary. As a result, we do what we can to pitch in and cover for each other when someone needs some time away – we all know that we may require the same support in the future.

As a leader, I want my staff to feel supported rather than confined by their work environment. I know that things happen throughout our lives that are outside of our control. It wasn’t too long ago that my kids were very little, and the demands of parenting took me away from work more than they do now. I also realize that my own parents may need care in the coming years, which would require me to take time away from the office on short notice.

When we support people as they navigate their complex lives, we build trust and loyalty. In a 2,400-person survey we conducted for our book, The Culture Question, people were much more likely to agree that they had a great place to work if their direct supervisor cared about them as a person. And they were even more likely to say that they trusted their supervisor if they cared about them as a person.

3 Ways to Support People When They Need Time Off

As in most things related to workplace culture, leadership sets the tone for responding to requests for time away. At ACHIEVE, we want our responses to build trust and loyalty. Together with the other leaders in my organization, we intentionally focus on the following three areas when faced with a request for time off:

1. Showing Understanding

When an employee tells us they need time off for a life event, our first response should be to take a deep breath and focus on what this means for them. There will be ample time to consider the impact on the workplace in the time that follows – use the moment to either celebrate or show empathy. This communicates that the person matters more than a temporary inconvenience at work.

2. Showing We Care

When someone is facing a significant challenge or when they celebrate a life event like a marriage or birth, we try to materially recognize it. We do this through simple acts like pitching in some money to provide a meal, sending cards and flowers, or celebrating with a staff potluck and gifts. These small acts of recognition come from both the company itself and from us as individuals – they mean something because they are physical reminders that we care.

3. Providing Flexibility

We also believe that people crave (and need) some flexibility, so we have made it possible to bank extra time for attending to life’s smaller events like medical appointments and school programs. We also provide time off without pay if someone runs out of leave time and, in some cases, we have even provided work tools such as a laptop so an employee can work remotely when they need to leave town.

When we respond to requests for time off with these elements in mind, we create an atmosphere where people know they are valued. This leads to expressions of gratitude toward the organization, rather than resentment. Treating employees as people first creates the conditions for a great place to work.

For more free resources, visit our resources page.


Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

Eric is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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