I often hear from employers who aren’t sure how to separate the facts of what they can do for their employees from the fiction they may hear when navigating the complexities of intermittent leave requests.

The Family and Medical Leave Act protects employees who need to take time off work for family or medical-related absences, either for themselves or family members. While employees may need to take time off work occasionally for situations that are protected by FMLA, these leaves can disrupt workplace productivity — especially if a recurring medical condition causes frequent absences. Managers find themselves in a situation where they must balance managing leaves with maintaining productivity.

While you can equip yourself with best practices to manage intermittent leave administration, it’s also important to focus on helping employees manage their productivity at work. The root cause of an employee’s intermittent leave sometimes can be reduced by providing the employee with a simple accommodation to help him or her perform a job more effectively and/or lessen any pain or symptoms while at work.

Here are a few common reactions I hear during the accommodations process, and what you can actually do to help.

“I can’t ask my employee any questions about his/her condition.”

FICTION: Employers often think they can’t ask about an employee’s struggles with the job because they aren’t supposed to know about any medical conditions and worry that knowing certain details will result in noncompliance. However, there are questions you can ask to gauge your employee’s ability to safely perform the job, which in turn, may lead to offering the right assistance. I’ve found a simple and sincere, “How are you doing?” can start a conversation and go a long way to help an employee who may be struggling with a medical condition, especially if you show genuine concern. An employee doesn’t need to share their diagnosis or treatment, but you can ask about their work capacity.

“When it comes to helping employees, my hands are tied.”

FICTION: In fact, for employers with at least 15 employees, helping a disabled employee with workplace accommodations may be required by the ADAAA. Whether the ADAAA applies or not, workplace accommodations can be an important part of helping employees reduce the need to take time off work because of a medical condition. While accommodations could include temporary schedules or job duties, and workspace modifications (such as a sit/stand desk to help a back condition or a keyboard to help a carpal tunnel diagnosis), there also are numerous outside-the-box ways to support employees.

"There are questions you can ask to gauge your employee’s ability to safely perform the job."

For example, migraines are a common cause for intermittent leaves. Although it’s difficult for an employee to predict when he or she will experience a migraine, many are caused by certain sensory triggers. Reducing fluorescent lighting, providing noise-cancelling headsets and/or designating fragrance-free areas at work are a few accommodations that can be implemented to potentially reduce the onset of symptoms.

“Wait — my disability carrier can help me implement accommodations?”

FACT: Many disability carriers have programs to help employees stay at work through an illness or injury. Not only that, some carriers even have staff — a nurse, and vocational and mental health case managers — whose understanding of chronic illnesses, musculoskeletal conditions and mental health disorders can help make sure your employees are receiving the right type of workplace accommodations. These professionals can even step in and help implement, source and follow up on an employee’s accommodation.

Although accommodations might not always eliminate the need for intermittent leaves, proactively addressing employee medical conditions can often reduce leaves and increase productivity instead of facing unpredictable, disruptive absences.

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