Preparing for a leave of absence

Taking time away from work can be stress-free if you approach it right.
Preparing for a leave of absence

We all face times in which it’s necessary to take extended time away from work: the birth of a baby, a personal or family member illness, or perhaps even a milestone holiday such as a retreat or an expedition. It may seem like taking a stress-free extended leave is next to impossible in a fast-paced finance job. The thought of stepping away for several months — and putting your responsibilities in someone else’s hands — is scary.

On the one hand, you’re thinking about all the things that might slip through the cracks at work if you’re not there. On the other, you don’t want to feel like you need to check email daily while you’re supposed to be on leave.

But if you set up your leave of absence carefully, you can not only carve out the personal time you need during an extended leave, but you can also position yourself for success — maybe even bolster your standing — upon your return.

Here’s how to do it, according to several experts.

Establish coverage. As soon as you know you’ll be taking leave, figure out who will be covering for you. You may need more than one person to absorb your work while you’re away. Marika Messager, a London-based executive coach, recommends hiring a department junior or intern — or several — to step into your role for a while. While it may seem counterintuitive to give the impression that interns can do your job, Messager encourages her clients to think of it differently.

“You’re taking the lead in organising how things are going to happen while you’re away,” she said. You don’t want your departmental peers to simply absorb your tasks on top of their own daily workloads. If you hire juniors, you can think of yourself as forming a team that you’ll be managing remotely. This allows you to remain in charge — and demonstrate leadership — even if you’re not at work.

Train people to do your job. Katherine Kummerow, a senior human resources adviser with the Seattle-based HR consulting firm Archbright, recommends creating a desk manual that details your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks, as well as a diary with due dates. Spend time leading up to your leave getting the information out of your head and into that manual. Then be prepared to answer occasional questions.

“If you’re able to communicate,” Kummerow said, “offer to your employer that you’re accessible by phone for whoever is going to be covering your desk while you’re gone.”

Introduce outside contacts to your team. If you work regularly with outside people, such as vendors or clients, Kummerow recommends introducing those contacts well before your leave begins. The more informed people are, the more confident they’ll feel that they will be taken care of in your absence.

“It makes everything a lot smoother,” she said. “It makes people feel like they’re included so that, especially customers, don’t feel like they’re abandoned.”

Kummerow suggests that your introduction include your replacement’s name, email address, phone number, hours of availability, and an assurance that that person is “well briefed” on any matters you’ve been dealing with specifically before you leave the office. You can make introductions via email, but if you’ve been working particularly closely with a client or customer, Kummerow recommends a site visit to facilitate the hand-off.

Find a time to check in. Kummerow said that one of the biggest misconceptions people have about taking leave is that they’re not supposed to make themselves at all available.

“There is a lack of communication both ways,” she said. “Employers think that they have to be hands-off, and employees think that they shouldn’t communicate with the office.”

If you’re well enough to talk on the phone or visit work, it’s OK to set up a regular time to check in. This regular point of contact means whoever is filling in for you can save questions for a specific time, which eliminates the need for you to respond to daily emails. If a regular check-in time isn’t necessary or something you want to do, Kummerow suggests still checking in occasionally with an update on how you’re doing, whether by phone, an office visit, or coffee with a co-worker.

These check-ins don’t even have to be work-related, Kummerow said. They’re more about staying in touch on a personal level. “They’re checking in to make sure that you’re doing OK,” she said, “because you work together!”

Look at the big picture. Taking an extended leave might feel like a threat to your career, but Messager encourages her clients to look at it as the opposite: an opportunity to assess the value you bring to your organisation.

“People fear that they’re not going to be needed anymore,” she said. “How you manage that is by accepting it, rather than pushing it away.”

Things may indeed be different when you return, but by delegating some of your operational work to a junior team as Messager recommends, you may find that, ultimately, you’ve positioned yourself for growth rather than obsolescence.

“The best thing I can do to prove my value and my leadership,” Messager said, “is to make sure things run smoothly without me.”

Katherine Raz is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at