Here is the problem as I see it: when someone falls down and breaks their leg, or arm, or elbow, or gets in an accident, and needs to be in the hospital or at home, that change in their appearance is noticed right away. When they call the office to tell the boss, or supervisor that they had an accident, steps are taken to make sure their position is covered and work goes on without any glitches. What time off policy is in place in your work space for that event? Is it written down, or is it on a case-by-case basis? What steps do you take to follow up with the employee to see what he or she needs while away from work? Do you call a meeting to discuss how the absence will be handled? If you are one of the people who worked closely with the person injured, how do you handle the workload until he/she returns? There are too many questions to answer at one time for sure.
The other question that is the elephant in the room: what do you do when someone loses a loved one, or a child, or has a catastrophic event happen that changes their life forever? That hurt is an internal loss and no one looks different from the outside because they suffered it. But pain is pain; no matter the cause. How do you handle that in the workplace? Is the discussion any different from the person with the broken leg or arm? What do you do to help that person? HR has a responsibility to do the right thing by all the employees. The workplace rules should be reviewed to make sure that everyone is on the same page. If your business has grown from a small company to a medium sized one, have new policies been written to cover time off, paid leave, unpaid leave or any other time off situations? Have your employee ranks grown so large that a whole department is needed to handle all of the HR issues that may come up? An annual review of this question is something that should be discussed by senior management. If it is not addressed in a calm situation, no one will know what to do when you are overtaken by events. The answers to all of the questions depend on the demographic of your company. Whether they are older or not, or have a military attachment, life happens. Be prepared.
I bring all of this to your attention for a very personal reason. On December 13, 2014, while my husband and I were on vacation, he had a stroke and died, suddenly. We were in DC, a three hour drive from our home in Chesapeake. He died on a Saturday morning. A relative of his came to help me with the paperwork needed to get the body cremated, as Jim had wanted. I will not go in to the details of that day with you. Suffice to say it was excruciating to have to think about what came next for me. The first thing I had to confront was the drive home, alone. I decided to continue to stay in DC, overnight as we had planned. Our reservation was thru noon on Sunday. I can tell you that you cannot drive and cry at the same time. Do not try this at home! I was so glad we had made the decision to take my car on the trip.
I got home on Sunday afternoon and after handling phone calls, mail etc., I sat down and wept. What was I going to do next? How do I go from a ‘we” of 15 years, to a “me”?? Who was going to help me with all the details large and small that would come up? My support circle was rather small at this point. I only had Jim’s son Jay and his wife Angie. They were so helpful with everything that happened when Jim died. What do I do about going back to work on Monday? I wear a lot of hats in my small office. How was I going to face my co-workers and tell them what happened? I decided to go to work on Monday just as if it were a normal day. When I got there and the staff began to ask how my vacation had been?
Ashely was the first to ask, “How was your vacation? You take so little time off, I bet it was great!”
All I could say when she asked me that was, “Part of it was great and part of it was awful”. I will tell you more about it when I figure out what needs doing on my desk.” Sometime later that day I called her in to my office and explained what happened over the weekend. She was so shocked and she could not believe I was at work after that trauma. As the week progressed, I told everyone else. My boss was out of town the first few days I was back so I waited to tell him when he returned. When I saw him I went in to his office with the door closed and told him what happened. I cried when I told him and when I was finished explaining it to him, he hugged me and told me to let him know what I needed from him during this transition and he would see that I had it. I already knew he was a good boss, but that reassurance during the worst time of my recent life made me like him even more.
Every morning for the next two weeks I broke down and cried before I went to work. I held myself together pretty well during the day. Except when I had to tell someone who had not heard the news; then I was a mess. But since I have my own private office, I can be on the phone or have a conversation with someone without anyone hearing me or interrupting me. Having the ability to close the door and take a moment or two when needed was a wonderful thing. It may seem small to many, but it was huge to me.
The decision to go back to work was not a difficult one for me as it may be for some others. I did not have children to take care of, or aging parents to take care of, either. I am an only child, and my parents are all deceased. I am all alone in the world as far as family member are concerned. Returning to work was a way to make something more normal out of my suddenly up-side-down world. We do have a liberal leave policy and time off is not hard to take when needed. This was more important now than ever. I used it, but did not abuse it.
In her new book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg does offer some help with how to deal with someone who is struggling through a traumatic event in their life. When she returned to Facebook after her husband died very suddenly, no one talked to her. They said they did not want to remind her of her loss. She says that of course no one can remind you of it, it is with you every moment of every day. The main thing she wanted employers to think about was that they needed to talk with the employee facing challenges and find out what they need. Really listen, not try to fix all of it; really listen. Do they want time off, or to be at work? Do they want to be part of a new project and show their skill, or sit this one out and participate at another time when they feel better? No two people will give you the same answer, but being in tune with the employee makes them feel much more involved in the decision making in their work life. Another very important thing she mentions is Post Traumatic Stress Growth. Yes, growth, in the middle of all this turmoil. We are capable of more than we think. I know this is true because I have seen it in my own life. Some of my growth has come from being involved with the VSRA. I have already published numerous articles for this newsletter as well as being involved with the HR committee and their events over the last 2 years. Check out Sheryl Sandberg’s book when you have time. It is great!
About the Author
Carol Bronson has been employed at Allied Research Technology, Inc. since November 2011. She was initially the Finance Manager, responsible for paying the bills and the payroll. Her responsibilities have increased over the years and now include human resources, workers’ compensation claims, unemployment paperwork and new employee interviews. She finds that her psychology degree has come in handy when employees come to her for personal issues.
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