Six Things to Do (and One to Avoid) When Communicating With an Employee on a Behavioral Health Leave

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Dan Jolivet
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Navigating behavioral health conditions in the workplace is no easy feat, especially when they result in a non-FMLA disability leave. When it comes to this type of disability leave, one of the key areas where employers struggle is knowing when and how to maintain communication with an employee during their absence.1

When an employee is out because of a physical condition, such as surgery or cancer, employers may be more comfortable contacting them to check in and offer appropriate support. Showing concern and offering support may help the employee to feel valued, and it may maintain their engagement with work during their time off, potentially facilitating a smooth return to work.

But when an employee is on leave with a behavioral health condition — including depression, anxiety, PTSD or substance use — managers and supervisors may be less likely to maintain such communication, either because of negative perceptions about such conditions or because they are afraid they won’t know what to say.

When to Reach Out

First and foremost, it’s important to be clear that whether or not you communicate with an employee on leave depends on the type of leave being used.

In order to completely avoid any possible perception of FMLA interference, employers must restrict communications with employees on FMLA leave to only communications clearly necessary to pass on institutional knowledge or documents. Guidance around this issue is frequently provided in a company policy concerning communicating with employees on FMLA leave. This policy may also include direction on communicating with employees out on non-FMLA leave, such as requirements for supervisors and managers to coordinate with HR around such communication.

With non-FMLA disability leave, there may be fewer legal issues, but managers and employers are frequently hesitant to contact an employee because of a lack of awareness of behavioral health conditions, negative perceptions about mental health and/or substance use disorders, and reasonable concerns about employee confidentiality and privacy.

Tips for Having a Conversation

In addition to addressing their own biases related to behavioral health conditions, employers can follow the same approach many use when contacting employees out on STD or LTD leaves for nonbehavioral health conditions. Here are a few considerations to use when determining when and how to contact an employee on leave for a behavioral health condition:

1. Give the employee control. Ask them if they want to maintain contact during their leave and, if so, with whom, how often, and in what form (e.g., telephone, email, text, etc.). Always accommodate the employee’s preferences to the greatest extent possible.

2. Schedule contacts in advance, rather than contacting them randomly. This helps set expectations for the employee, and can provide structure and predictability to the employee’s life at a time when they are most needed, particularly for people struggling with a behavioral health condition.

3. Emphasize why you’d like to stay in touch. Reiterate that keeping in contact is intended to help the employee maintain their connection to the workplace and to express concern and support, just as the you would do with an employee dealing with a physical issue.

4. Clarify your intent. Remind the employee that you won’t be discussing confidential medical information, but instead, just checking in on how they are doing in general.

5. Ask how you can help or support the employee. For instance, ask if there are any issues the employee may be facing with their disability insurance, health insurance, HR department, etc.

6. Ask if the employee would like updates on work. This should be framed around any major projects they were involved in prior to their leave – not so the employee can assist with the work, but just so they can be aware of progress on the work they had been doing.

What’s also important to remember is to not use these touch points to address performance issues or to initiate disciplinary processes, unless that has been specifically reviewed and approved by the employer’s HR and legal departments.

I also like to provide this reminder to all employers: be yourself. Expressing authentic empathy and support can go far to help an employee who is out on leave. By contacting employees who are on a non-FMLA disability leave for a behavioral health or substance use condition, you can communicate concern and support, while also demonstrating that the employee is valued and their return to work is welcomed. This also can counter any fears the employee may have about stigma and the potential negative effect their condition might have on their career, increasing the employee’s engagement and willingness to return to work.


1 This article is intended to provide general advice only. For specific questions, consult an HR professional or legal counsel.