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Designing an Effective Leave Structure for Employees

By Amanda Neely

December 2021

Leave management can feel like a routine human resources process, but for your workers, leaves of absence often represent major milestone moments in their lives. An effective leave structure for employees sets them up for a good experience by setting their expectations before, during and after their leave of absence.

Here’s what you need to know to design an effective employee leave structure for your workforce.

What is an Employee Leave Structure?

Employee leave structure refers to the steps of the leave of absence process, including the time made available to employees in compliance with federal law. 

A consistent leave structure guides employees through the leave process and helps them understand their obligations at each point within. Putting a leave structure into place permits employees to anticipate the steps of the leave of absence process, which can help reduce their stress and anxiety.

Setting expectations is an integral part of designing a better employee leave experience. Developing an employee leave structure helps employees understand the process and what they should expect before, during and after their leave of absence.

Having a clearly set structure can reduce questions and concerns from employees as they begin the leave request process. Outline your employee leave structure in employee-facing documents (such as your handbook) and make it available for review through your intranet portal.

It‘s possible to create a leave structure that complies with federal and state guidelines and provides employees with a positive leave experience. 

Leave Management vs. Leave Structure for Employees

Leave management and leave structure aren’t the same, although the terms are similar. Leave management is more procedural and refers to the policies and processes set by HR and management to create a fair and equitable employee leave experience. 

Leave structure for employees is more experience-oriented than leave management. An effective structure eliminates surprises and unexpected stressors from the process, allowing employees to focus on what they need to do.

4 Stages of an Effective Leave Structure

Leave structure for each employee should follow the same basic format. Your goal is to create a consistent leave structure so that employees know what to expect, whether they’ve been through the process themselves or watched colleagues go through it.

Here are the stages of an effective leave structure for employees.

Leave Planning

The leave planning stage should set expectations for the rest of the process. At this point, employees are exploring their options and need access to resources and support. 

Employees should have access to information regarding leave, including the types of leave benefits they’re eligible for, how much time they can take and whether they qualify for paid time off or leave without pay. Decision support software can provide accurate answers to employees’ fundamental questions around their options, eligibility and leave balance. With these questions answered, when they meet with an HR representative, they can drill into their specific leave request.

Schedule Management

Without effective schedule management, employees will feel stressed and overwhelmed heading into their leave of absence. 

To help employees go on leave with as little stress as possible, work with them to manage their schedules and workloads leading up to the leave period. Use a checklist to help employees prioritize their workloads and plan their time out. 

Time Spent on Leave

The actual leave itself is the only point where each employee’s leave structure should diverge. The time allotted for each leave of absence depends on the type of leave the employee is qualified to use but can range from a few days to up to five years.

Here are some basic leave structures permitted by federal legislation.

Family and Medical Leave Act

FMLA is the most common type of leave of absence. Employees can use their 12 weeks of leave granted by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) across a 12-month period. For the actual time that employees are out under the FMLA guidelines, employers can choose from four leave structures:

  • The calendar year: Jan. 1 through Dec. 31.
  • Any fixed 12-month period: For example, Nov. 1 through Oct. 31 of the following year.
  • The 12-month period measured forward, starting from the first date an employee takes FMLA leave: If an employee’s first day of leave is April 15, they would have up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave beginning on that date and available through the following April 14.
  • A “rolling” 12-month period measured backward: If an employee requests three weeks of FMLA but has already used 10 weeks in the previous 12-month period, they will only have two weeks remaining until the calendar resets on the date of their first leave.

Employers set the particular structure they want to use for calculating FMLA leave.

Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act

Under USERRA guidelines, employees can take a leave of absence for a cumulative period of up to five years of uniformed service. Since the five years are cumulative, qualifying employees can use this leave intermittently.

  • Service of 1-30 days: Employees can be called back to work after an eight-hour rest period.
  • Service of 31-180 days: Employees can apply for reemployment no more than 14 days following completion of service.
  • Service of 180 days or more: Employees can apply for reemployment no more than 90 days following completion of service.

The unpaid leave under USERRA is the longest, so when employees use this leave, it’s especially important to follow a dedicated leave structure.

Americans With Disabilities Act

Under the ADA, employees can be eligible for leave as an accommodation, even if they’ve exhausted their FMLA allotment for the 12-month period. The length and structure of leave as an accommodation is generally set on a case-by-case basis. State laws may outline additional obligations for disability-related leaves of absence.

Return to Work

Returning to work from leave can be a point of anxiety for employees. Set upfront expectations for what the return will look like to minimize employee anxiety heading into their leave of absence.

Develop a return-to-work plan to help employees reacclimate after time away. This is especially critical for extended leave periods such as the five years allotted for uniformed service under USERRA. Leaves of absence under USERRA follow the “escalator” principle. In addition to being eligible for reemployment in the same role, service members are also eligible for raises and promotions that they would have attained, with reasonable certainty, had it not been for their service period. There needs to be training in place to retrain and elevate qualifying employees.

Remember that it’s not just skills that require updating, especially after an extended leave. Returning employees will also have to reacclimate to the company culture and readjust to the norms and expectations of the workforce. If such characteristics have changed during their time away, it’s even more important to be explicit about what they are, like you would with a new employee.

Take care not to make returning employees feel like they’re outsiders, unwanted or out of the loop. Your return-to-work program requires a delicate balance to prevent returning employees from becoming overwhelmed. By viewing return to work post leave as an onboarding opportunity, it creates higher chances for retention and success.

3 Steps for Designing an Effective Leave Structure

Even if you’ve never standardized it, your company probably has a leave structure for employees in place. Here’s how to codify, improve and evaluate your leave structure.

Review Your Current Leave Structure

Identify each of the stages of leave as they’re currently carried out at your company. If you’ve never standardized your structure, the stages are likely to vary by department.

Survey stakeholders (employees who have taken leave under your current structure, as well as administrators and managers) to identify the points where the structure is least effective. You can make quick early progress by strengthening the points that are weakest. 

Implement Changes to Improve Your Leave Structure

Once you’ve identified the weaknesses in your leave structure, pilot changes to improve it. Use the data you’ve gathered from surveys and focus groups to pioneer new processes. If you identify differences across the company (like variations in schedule management across departments), identify the most effective methods to standardize across the company.

Pioneer new programs to fill gaps in your existing structure. 

Evaluate Your Changes to Determine Success or Failure

With your redesigned leave structure in place, survey stakeholders to determine whether the changes have been successful. Consider these questions:

  • Do employees feel more comfortable launching the leave process? 
  • Do employees know where to find accurate information? 
  • Do they feel confident about clearing their schedules so that work isn’t a point of anxiety while they’re out? 
  • Are employees confident about their return-to-work plan and their ability to reacclimate to their daily schedule?

Survey the managers involved in the process, too: 

  • Did the schedule management stage go smoothly? 
  • Do they have access to the information they need to properly support employee questions?
  • How did team members of the employee on leave feel about their absence? 
  • Was the process managed effectively to minimize lost productivity during the leave period?

Rate your changes for their success or failure, and identify ways to continue improving your employee leave structure.

An effective leave structure for employees gives them the time, space and mental bandwidth they need to focus on the big moments in their personal lives — without having to worry about work. When you can remove the many doubts and concerns that plague employees during the leave process, you empower them to prioritize what matters in their personal lives.

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