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How to deal with FMLA anxiety

It would appear that the ability to effectively handle frantic, panicking, and anxious managers is one of the major characteristics that an HR professional must be able to develop, especially in smaller organizations. These managers are those who feel victimized or cheated in some form by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The FMLA is the HR law that has been responsible for creating the most anger and unrest.

Although it’s quite straightforward in explanation, the FMLA is much more complex in execution and practice. Everyone who puts in 1250 hours of work in their first employment year is eligible for a leave period of 12 weeks for them to be able to cover absences that occur as a result of any serious medical conditions that involved themselves or any of their family members. Simple, isn’t it?

However, the main issues comes with the understanding and interpretation of the use of the phrase “twelve weeks,” because that entails a load of time that the manager is able to plan for, such as vacations. It will actually be much more accurate to say that everyone who has covered this work time is eligible for 480 hours of leave, because there are only two types of leave that are allowed by law to give managers fits; intermittent leave and reduced-schedule leave.

Intermittent leave has over time proven to be the most difficult type of leave to deal with. Essentially, an employee with (or taking care of a family member with) a serious medical condition that might involve occasional flare-ups or a series of continuous treatment can be able to spread those 480 hours over the course of an entire calendar year and these hours usually fall at hours that are otherwise inconvenient for managers. Although the law will require that an employee gives a prior notice of an absence, the FMLA also includes the phrase “when practicable”. Sometimes, a condition (take migraines, for instance) is unpredictable in its own righty and has the ability of preventing an employee from going to work. If the medical practitioner writes something like “may be absent 2-3 days per month at unpredictable intervals,” in the medical report of said employee, that will mean that all of those absences are absences that are actually covered by law and as such, the employee has the legal backing to embark on them. This can in turn give managers their own form of migraines as they will try to work regardless of this shortage in manpower and deal with the impact of pressing deadlines and coverage issues, all of which will undoubtedly have negative impacts on the business if not treated effectively.

Another problematic issue is that of reduced-schedule leave, which occurs when the medical provider advises that a person only works for a fraction of his or her usual weekly schedule for health-related reasons. Managers who had relied on an integral person for an important function on the job will find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

These two situations will cause the frustrated and perplexed manager to go to the HR department and seek to find any loopholes, exceptions, second opinions and suggestions in order to hire private detectives to investigate and ascertain if the employee really has a “serious medical condition” or if he or she is just being lazy and is looking for a way to shave off some work time. Some managers even try to still get these employees to work from home, with no regard to the instructions of the medical practitioner and without permission from the HR professional

While I have seen a few cases where employees actually improperly used the FMLA, the vast majority of people on the FMLA are there without their own volition. They’d rather not have a serious medical condition and live in constant fear for their lives. They want to work and make their money…and they want to do so for as long as they can and in lieu of that, they definitely don’t want to have an angry manager who doesn’t give a care about the as much as he does about getting the job done.

The problem isn’t that people go on FMLA. I mean, come on; stuff happens and that’s just how life works. The problem lies with managers who have no idea as to how to plan to save their lives and businesses.

Here’s my counsel to HR professionals on how to deal with managers who seem to make the FMLA a living hell for them; when you train your managers on FMLA, open your pitch with a PowerPoint slide says this;

 “FMLA is the law. Get over it.”

No pictures, no graphics. Just that simple message

Once they’ve been able to reel from the shock, enlighten them as to how how FMLA works. Teach them to prepare for it and make it in terms as simple as you can possibly make it.

  • Plan your overall staffing needs based on the assumption that sooner or later, at least one person in your department will always take the FMLA for an excuse to be out.  For every ten people, add one FMLA escapee.
  • Ensure that every work process that goes on in your department is documented and easy to follow so that anyone can  easily replace an absent worker with a little bit of refresher training.
  • Make sure you have at least one (or even two) people who can act in the capacity of backups for every job in your department. Implement a cross-training plan that will make your employees more versatile and stick to it. Make sure the backup is up-to-date on the job they’re assigned to cover.
  • List all of the resources you have available that can help you temporarily fill in for a person; temp agencies, temp pools, interns, floaters, borrowing people from other departments are all viable solutions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your fellow managers for help when staffing is a bit untidy.
  • Learn to run every job. Particularly when it comes to intermittent leave, you may find that you will be the only choice for a backup. When it comes to that, you sure can’t be found wanting.

The law expects that management will make whatever preparations they see as necessary to comply with the requirements of the FMLA and its provisions. With a little planning and foresight, managers will help themselves and avoid the usual panic, ensure that things are stable and running and still have the ability to focus on the administrative aspects of the business, regardless of whether the workforce is compete or not. The can even try to encourage a “sick”: person to get better soon.

 And that’s exactly where they should be.