Successful return-to-work processes more essential during coronavirus

For Chantelle Tadman, returning to work after maternity leave was more eventful than she’d hoped it would be.

Between needing to take disability leave during her pregnancy and the maternity leave itself, she was off for 21 months. During that time, her company was acquired, her manager left and her team and job responsibilities completely changed. “There was the anxiety of going through an acquisition; I knew [it] was happening, but I didn’t hear from anyone for over a year.”

However, Tadman’s new manager helped smooth the transition by reaching out to her two months before she was set to come back. “I’m grateful because my manager connected with me . . . to explain my new team and ask where I would fit in,” she says. “It was good to have that connection ahead of time so I could wrap my brain around what it is I’m going to be doing when I return to work.”

Read: Innovative benefits communication nets award for WSP Canada

Tadman has kept that experience in mind in her current role as benefits and wellness lead at WSP Canada Inc. “That’s something I try to live every time we’re reviewing these processes for return to work or going on leave, just making the experience as smooth as possible.”

Workloads, reputations and privacy

Taking a leave of absence — whether to be with a new child, deal with an illness or mental-health challenge or care for a sick loved one — can be a nerve-wracking process for employees and the return to work can feel just as fraught.

Employers must have return-to-work processes that address employees’ concerns, such as whether their job responsibilities or workloads have altered, if work has built up or if their workplace has changed while they were away. If they were recovering from a mental or physical illness, they may also be concerned about office gossip.

“Reintegration to work can be tough after a long leave. [Employees] might be feeling a bit rusty or feeling anxious about it,” says Nora Jenkins Townson, founder and principal of Toronto-based human resources consultancy Bright + Early.

Read: Dealing with stigma of returning to work after mental-health leave

Return-to-work processes are all the more important during the coronavirus crisis, as employers begin bringing laid-off employees back to work and as they prepare for the likelihood that, in a second wave of the pandemic, workers will have to take sick or short-term disability leave related to the virus or to the mental-health impacts of the crisis.

By the numbers

41% of Canadian employers laid off staff in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

38% have reduced staff hours or shifts.

18% have laid off 80% or more of their employees.

69% of companies in the accommodations and food services sector laid off at least 80% of their staff.

27% of survey respondents said they haven’t implemented any staffing changes.
Source: Statistics Canada, May 2020

A leave policy should explain how to continue benefits and pension contributions, whether a supplemental unemployment benefit plan exists, when to expect check-ins from managers and options for returning to work.

“You want to make sure you have a policy written down before anything happens . . . . It’s not a good time to be negotiating that with someone when they’re already in a sensitive situation,” says Jenkins Townson. “Whether someone’s pregnant or ill, it’s easier to have a policy in advance and that also takes the pressure off of employees, because they’ll be able to read up on those policies and arm themselves with information prior to booking that leave.”

Read: A refresher on Canada’s leave policies as coronavirus escalates

During a leave, it’s also important to protect employees’ workload, reputation and privacy, she notes. Employers can have a plan for who takes care of an employee’s tasks while they’re away and that also addresses any capacity issues that may arise. But they must also respect the employee’s privacy by controlling the messaging around why they’re off, especially if it’s a sensitive situation. This could be relevant in the event of a furlough related to coronavirus, if employees are questioning when their laid-off colleagues will be returning to work.

Staying in touch

Employers should also keep the lines of communication open while employees are on leave, but also make sure check-ins are on the employee’s terms. “Some people want to keep a pulse of what’s going on at work, they want to be informed of the major changes while they’re away and there are other people who would feel resentful or pressured by being contacted with work information while they’re on leave. I think it depends on the individual,” says Jenkins Townson. “My best advice would be to have a checklist or a list of questions you use every time for folks who are going on leave and have an employee fill it in with their manager.”

Read: Sounding Board: Balancing employee, employer rights in return-to-work plans

At WSP, check-ins depend on the type of leave. During maternity leave, an employee’s human resources point person reaches out sporadically, says Tadman, noting HR also makes contact if there’s been an important change at the office. For example, when the company updated its SUB plan in January 2019 to provide up to 16 weeks of pay to new mothers — up from six to eight weeks previously — HR reached out to about 20 employees who’d already gone on leave to let them know they’d qualify for the new program.

Four to six weeks before the scheduled end of a maternity leave, HR will email to ask if the employee still plans to come back to the office. If the answer is yes, the company begins the re-onboarding process. Managers are given a checklist that covers email and phone setup and communicating company changes, while the employee gets their own checklist, which involves health and safety policy updates, code of conduct refreshers, benefits and savings plan re-enrolment and information about connecting with their manager.

Read: Best practices for return-to-work committees

Check-ins for compassionate leave are more delicate in nature, adds Tadman, but are important because they’re meant to get a sense of how much more time off the employee needs.

The coronavirus factor

For employers that have laid off staff during the coronavirus pandemic, Jenkins Townson suggests they check in throughout the layoff to see how they’re doing and to let them know how the company is measuring against its goals for when it will bring staff back.

“I think a lot of people will be wondering whether they’re going to be called back or not. Maybe it’s not a promise you can make, but staying in touch with folks and letting them know that is your intention would be helpful so they don’t feel abandoned.”

Read: 41% of Canadian businesses have laid off staff due to coronavirus: Stats Can

For this return, employers will have to keep some legal considerations in mind. Stephanie Kalinowski, a partner at Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP, says the most pressing issue pertains to group benefits. “If their coverage lapsed while they were absent, will they be able to re-enroll or resume coverage immediately or will there be a waiting period necessary before they can be covered again?”

There are also risks around lapsed disability coverage, she notes. “If someone were to become seriously ill and needed support from their disability plan and the insurer says, ‘Sorry, you weren’t covered and in order to re-enroll now you need to pass a medical exam’ and something about their status has changed, that could be a huge problem.”

For employees laid off during the pandemic, WSP continued to offer benefits, including disability coverage, to keep staff whole, says Tadman, noting the company is in the process of planning its return-to-work strategy for laid-off employees.

Read: Half of Canadian employers have a policy to address benefits during disability: survey

After many difficult months, bringing the whole team back could be an opportunity for a team-building activity. “We’re fighting a common battle with COVID-19 and the economy,” says Jenkins Townson. “Usually a layoff is not something to celebrate, but if you’re making it through and able to bring your employees back and go back to business as usual, you can celebrate and do something nice for your team.”

Kelsey Rolfe is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.