managing a seriously ill employee who’s making mistakes

A reader writes:

My team’s strongest performer is in the midst of a serious, life-changing health crisis, and this is causing issues with her usually stellar performance. Typically, she requires little to no oversight and exercises astute judgment. However, due to her stress during this time, she is failing to follow standard operating procedures, sending redundant emails about known issues, and finding issues that don’t exist or missing ones that do. (To be clear, this is being caused by stress, not by the medical condition itself — and she will admit as such and knows that she is somewhat distracted.) I am not concerned about this from a disciplinary standpoint like I would be if these kinds of mistakes were coming from a typical employee, but she works with both internal and external clients and I am having to correct information that is sent to them, including communications that we have standard templates for, which she is not consistently using. I am also having to respond to the redundant emails and remind her that we have already discussed and resolved these issues, and let her know when I make corrections.

This feels like the type of micromanaging that I know she has bristled at from others in the past, and I normally relate with her more as an advisor for her higher-level problems, which is a relationship that has worked well for both of us. I do not want to add to her stress, but I am also concerned that these issues will get worse as her illness progresses, and I do think it is useful for her to see what she is missing so that she is aware of what to look out for and that she would want me to do so. How can I best navigate these concerns while still being considerate and compassionate during this difficult time?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My staff member assumes she’s invited to meetings when she isn’t
  • When someone doesn’t come back after bereavement leave
  • Employee is monopolizing the conference room to get quiet work space

{ 116 comments… read them below }

  1. LTR FTW*

    The ill problem employee letter could have been written about me. During my breast cancer treatment, I was physically healthy but mentally I was just… not there. I thought at the time that it was important to maintain some level of normalcy, so I worked through surgery (took a few days but came back sooner than expected because I was feeling okay physically) and then through chemo.

    I was always a stellar performer, but my work output absolutely tanked during that time. Finally I went to my boss and told him I needed to go on medical leave… it was SO hard to do this, it felt like I was letting the team down (even though I knew I was dropping balls left and right).

    In hindsight of course I realize that I should have gone on leave MUCH sooner. I wish my manager had offered that option to me upfront instead of just letting me keep working because it was easier for him to just act like everything was okay. My strong recommendation to OP is to put that option on the table ASAP. Even if it’s just taking some things off of the employee’s plate, it’s important to recognize that things are NOT business as usual right now. The compassionate thing to do is to let the employee know that there’s a resolution.

    I certainly *knew* I was screwing up. It added to my already stressed to the max situation. The day I decided to go on leave, it felt like the greatest load off my shoulders.

    1. Just Keep Swimming*

      I had exactly the same experience. I worked all through my breast cancer treatment, even though I knew how much mental fog I was experiencing — first just from the stress, then from the chemo. Knowing what I did about “chemo brain,” I tried so hard to be careful and put systems in place to double check my work. Yet when cyclical annual tasks–budgets, event plans, etc.–rolled around a year later, I looked at my output from the previous year and was aghast at the mistakes I saw, and also grateful and a little ashamed over all the things I could see my colleagues had just fixed and cleaned up without saying a word. In retrospect, I was trying to preserve my sense of normalcy by dragging myself into the office, which meant being miserable trying to function while I was constantly nauseated, exhausted, and on edge. I should have just taken leave and reserved all of my energy for dealing with my treatment.
      One important note is that each phase of treatment had a different impact for me — the chemo was mind-melting, but the radiation phase felt like nothing. If I had known up front that what I really needed was 10 weeks of leave for the worst of the chemo vs. 7 months for the full treatment plan, I think I would have taken it. So if you can offer flexibility, e.g. “Let’s try leave for the X weeks of this particularly harsh phase and then re-evaluate to see if you need more for the next one,” this might encourage your employee to take the time they need.

    2. Pam*

      Yeah, this could have been me, except with a mental health condition.
      When I was going through a divorce, I developed depression. I missed the symptoms- I wasn’t sad or angry, just constantly exhausted by everything. I didn’t have the energy to chase down work stuff.

      Thankfully I eventually figured out what was going on and got medication, but it was a climb to get back. I was put on a PIP and got a little more support. Things that would have helped me were knowing what the support systems were, what options I had, etc. Intermittent FMLA would be nice, because I wanted to work, but didn’t have the bandwidth to always mentally be there. I knew I was struggling, so was ready for the PIP conversation when it happened.

    3. Leslie*

      “In hindsight of course I realize that I should have gone on leave MUCH sooner. I wish my manager had offered that option to me upfront instead of just letting me keep working because it was easier for him to just act like everything was okay.”

      I had that exact same experience and wish.

    4. dobradziewczynka*

      I relate so much to letter #1 – except for an illness, it was grief over losing my mom. I was making mistakes like crazy and tried to address it head-on with my boss(who would say she understood) but ultimately I ended up leaving the job due to the stress. Ended up going to a previous employer who asked for me and it worked out.

      In retrospect I wish my workload was less and received better support (saying you understand versus actually helping to figure out a plan).

      It’s sad either way.

    5. MigraineMonth*

      For me, it was the month or more between finding the (potentially life-threatening) problem and the operation that was hardest. I didn’t want to use my medical leave before the operation, but I was a zombie for that entire time. I decided to disclose to my manager, and they were excellent about taking things off my plate until I returned. Which is good, because I can’t recall a single thing I accomplished beyond being present at meetings.

      1. LTR FTW*

        Oh gosh yes. I remember that I got my cancer diagnosis a few days before going on a business trip… I don’t recall one thing about that conference. I was in an absolute daze.

    6. Donna Noble*

      I had to check because I introduced my last supervisor to this column recently. I left my last position when I got sick. Everyone thought they were so supportive with their words or that they were being objective and professional but essentially told me “the job is the job”. By the time I had an actual diagnosis, I was done with them.

      1. Peonies*

        Yes, recently lost a parent and the job was good about letting me take leave, much of my work was waiting for me when I returned. So then I was grieving and overloaded at work. It was not good.

    7. Anon for this one*

      Hands up on the “chemo brain is real and it sucks” front here! Having clear understanding all around that the situation, and any measures in place to deal with it, is temporary should go a long way. I had chemo before surgery, and ended up going on leave about a month and a half before surgery, as soon as I ran out of sick days (some rare chemo side effects were really leaving me flat). I’m really glad I did – I couldn’t have worked much longer.

      (Currently in the middle of radiation, and the only hard part is the daily 6:00 am wakeup to get treatment in early so it doesn’t disrupt work too much!)

      1. eisa*

        Hah, I also did it like that . Radiation treatment five times a week at 7:30 a.m. and then I went into the office.
        (I was lucky though, no chemo)

    8. kiki*

      Yes! I think a lot of managers will wait with the understanding that the employee will ask for whatever they need. But a lot of times employees don’t know what they need yet or don’t know what all the options. A lot of employees would be very hesitant to ask their boss to lighten their load because asking if they can work less doesn’t sound like a real option. But it is and having a manager suggest it can make an employee feel less guilty about needing that accommodation.

    9. Just Another Techie*

      I’m not ill, but I’m going through a divorce and I went from turning around projects on timelines that my friends in the industry literally couldn’t believe could be done, to total space cadet, over the last two months. I finally told my boss a few weeks ago, and I think he was really relieved to know there’s a reason for my sudden and all encompassing drop in performance.

    10. Reluctant Mezzo*

      I had a boss who was upset I had a medical procedure for month-end and was totally brain dead from it (and upset I actually missed a day of work for it). I no longer have that boss, and I am very happy about it.

    11. Pianogirl*

      My previous supervisor had a very serious medical condition that he was very open about. While he waited for his surgery date, he would come to work and would often lay his head down on his desk. I talked to my other supervisors and started giving them the items I needed to be reviewed. After he had surgery, I discovered reports had been misfiled and work had piled up on his desk. I ended up taking over the easier aspects of his job, and the other supervisors took over the rest.
      He made it through, and returned to the office. He took over some of his duties. Please, if this person is supervising someone on top of their workload, keep that in mind.

  2. Ellen Ripley*

    Argh I feel for the employee in the last letter. She is just trying to use free, available space to deal with noisy coworkers! In my opinion from the limited info here, OP should be more focused on getting the new hires to keep the volume down rather than trying to control what this employee is doing

    1. Emily*

      It also seems like they’re is a lot of expected mind reading going on. If LW wants the new hires to keep the noise down, LW has to let them know!

      1. BubbleTea*

        Yes, I noticed that. Why do the new employees not know this is a silent office? Why does the laptop employee keep using a room that she’s not meant to use? Well, has anyone TOLD them those things?

        1. DataSci*

          The new employees are presumably adults, and should know that offices are primarily for working, with socialization a distant second. It may be the problem is that with only one conference room, they can’t grab a room for a quick work-related discussion and end up having it at someone’s desk. If that’s the case (assuming the conversations are work-related) then noise-cancelling headphones may be the best option – sounds like some people are already doing this?

          1. Random Dice*

            Different work places have very different approaches to noise and socializing.

            But it’s a great illustration of how companies do things employees hate (and that are anti-productivity) in order to save money, then everyone pretend the problem is the employees.

          2. WillowSunstar*

            I’d like to know why there is only one conference room in a large building. Is it just that it’s the only one routinely available because others are taken up for recurring meetings?

            Noise-cancelling headphones that truly work well are on the spendy side — is the company reimbursing employees for it, or are they expected to just eat ramen noodles and buy the headphones?

            1. Dust Bunny*

              Some workplaces don’t use them that often so there’s no reason to waste floor space on more than one.

          3. nodramalama*

            This might be your workplace, but it certainly is not all workplaces. In mine socialisation is common and talking out loud at our desks to discuss issues is encouraged

            1. The Rural Juror*

              Same at mine (which I genuinely enjoy). We’re moving offices soon and they presented the new layout to us a couple of months ago (construction is happening on the finish out now). They included a “study hall” space for when folks need a quiet, heads-down work area to escape chatter and whatnot. I believe there will be 8 desks with full set ups so we can dock our laptops and a no talking rule! The space will include a phone booth in case someone gets a call. I thought that was a great idea and it’s a space I’ll probably use from time to time :)

        2. Green great dragon*

          Yes! Your new employees see people talking a bit at their desks, and someone going to the free space for quiet work. They are new and probably feel even less comfortable asking her to move so they can have the space for discussion. Someone needs to tell them what the expectation is.

          Or, of course, get everyone laptops and let them work from home on days they need quiet.

      2. Fluffy Fish*

        Yes. More senior employees should have standing to loop in more junior employees of office norms.

        No need to wait around until they get it. Simply go introduce yourself, welcome them to the team and say “by the way you probably noticed its pretty open here. Just so you know sound really carries so we all try to work as quietly as possible as not to disrupt each other. A lot of people employ things like headphones.”

    2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I was wondering why the laptop employee didn’t reserve the room for a couple hours, but then I realized she is taking it when it’s available for as long as possible and not blocking hours that people would need for meetings.
      Yeah, if she’s getting up, no problem, I’d feel awkward the first couple times anyway and then just try to have a “hey, have a meeting in five minutes here.” Put her out of my head and get myself settled.

    3. MigraineMonth*

      Yeah, the real solution to OP4’s issue is to not have an open office. They’re terrible at every level (except they’re cheap). They utterly fail at increasing collaboration. If you can’t afford semi-private offices, at least throw up some cubicle walls.

      If you absolutely can’t do that, there needs to be a division between “quiet workspace, no conversations” and “area for calls, conferences and conversations”. A good white noise generator can help prevent the opposite of a noisy workspace, which is a workspace where you can hear the chair on the other side of the room squeak.

      1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        +1. As a ND person, that would be a nightmare. And I’ve read that they actually decrease face to face communication and increase email/DMs.

        1. DataSci*

          They absolutely do. I’m not going to go ask someone a question in person when doing so would disrupt 3 or 4 other people working near them. And I get really annoyed when others don’t show me the same courtesy and ask my neighbor a question that could have been a Slack message!

          1. MigraineMonth*

            I asked the person next to me in a low voice how to do simple task X. That set of fifteen minutes of debate over the best possible way to do X between four people I hadn’t asked.

            I learned to only ask on Slack.

        2. Rainbow*

          Ha, I love this as I am ND and feel the same, but most other NDs seem to want as much silence as possible. I can’t deal with noise cancelling headphones in public either, as I constantly feel like somebody could be trying to get my attention and I’m embarrassing myself by not hearing them!!

          I do like to use small quiet rooms to work, especially when my NDness is getting a lot. One great solution is those little pods you can install in offices. You can get 1-person ones, 2-person ones, big ones, little ones, ones with screens, ones with lights, temporary ones, permanent ones. Since my last job move I spend a lot of time in the small open-yet-discreet pods downstairs!

          1. Dust Bunny*

            ND here and the physical discomfort of headphones is almost as bad as the noise of an open-plan office.

      2. Lily Rowan*

        The one thing they are good for is (potentially) looking amazing. I worked in an open office and definitely hated it, but could not deny that it looked great to walk into this open space with all the window, cityscape, etc.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Oh yeah, the windows were great, except between 3 and 6pm when there was too much glare to see our screens, so they gave each desk a… fake leaf shade? It was weird.

      3. Ellis Bell*

        Yes, this is what happens in an open office! People use spaces flexibly and fluidly. People have to do what they can to get some quiet. It wouldn’t be okay for the colleague to hog the space, but they aren’t! They’re using it when it’s free and freeing it up when asked.

      4. WillowSunstar*

        Open offices are not great, I strongly agree as someone who’s worked in them. I wish companies would a. realize this and b. stop trying to be “cool” and have the open office. It’s not cool if people can’t actually work in it.

        1. Mongrel*

          “b. stop trying to be “cool” and have the open office. It’s not cool if people can’t actually work in it.”

          I think the problem is, the people who make these decisions will have an office and aren’t doing it to look cool.
          They’re doing it because it’s cheaper, everything else is retroactive framing, much like the return to the office mandates because “collaboration”

          1. Gatomon*

            This. Our mandates are coming down from the C-suite, where they have individual offices the size our entire (new) workspace for 12. They spend their days talking to each other and meeting with each other. Their perception of what work is is nothing like how I, a teapot engineer, actually spend my day. Meetings and phone calls and people popping in with questions are always disruptive to my job. I don’t know why they’re wasting so much money on this project to bring us back and cram us together when we’re all going to sit there in noise-canceling headphones messaging each other anyway.

      5. GythaOgden*

        That’s not a real solution here, though. Firstly, office configurations are not easy to change back once it’s been decided on and implemented, or if you’re coming in to a new place.

        Secondly, all offices I’ve worked in in the UK have been open and it’s the norm here. I actually prefer it — I get claustrophobic, and the way things are set up for us there’s more daylight, particularly during the winter, and I interviewed in one place that was an attempt at an open office where there wasn’t much space or window access which would have been hell to work in all day every day. I’m not joking when I say that in the UK you’d be hard-pressed, I think, to find non-open office space.

        Arguing that OP should just whine at management until they get their way is also going to cost them a lot in terms of capital and make them look stupid or naive, given the constraints on most businesses as regards property development.

        And also, yup, saving money on some things means that saving is able to be used on things that matter — salaries, raises, better equipment, maybe product costs being a bit lower. Businesses don’t try to cut costs for fun; they do so because they have a finite amount of money coming in and presumably have to budget for all kinds of things. Saving money on office space allows them to consider spending on other aspects of employment or re-invest in actual business expenses like marketing or product development, ultimately keeping people in their jobs and creating new ones.

        So yeah, there’s a method behind the madness, and ‘get company to change office layout’ isn’t a very practical response to OP.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          And also, yup, saving money on some things means that saving is able to be used on things that matter

          Seems to me that non-tortuous workspaces matter?

  3. DMLOKC*

    I can’t access Inc. without a subscription. It says I’ve reached my max free articles.

    1. Rob S*

      I feel like they give you 1 free article a month or 4 if you give them your information for them to sell aka making a free account….

    2. Aggretsuko*

      You’re not always going to be able to read every website Alison writes at, if it’s a pay site. You’ll just have to either pay to read there there or deal with not reading. C’est la Internet in the 2020’s.

      1. I am Emily's failing memory*

        Also worth noting that with Inc in particular, they’re all letters she’s answered before here on her blog. They often appear in the “related articles” linked at the end of the post promoting her Inc feature, and if not you can usually copy and paste a snippet of the letter into the search bar on this site to find the original. Her answers are sometimes updated for Inc so you wouldn’t be seeing the newest version of the answer, but someone would at least have enough context to participate in the comments section discussion if they wanted.

    3. I should really pick a name*

      Luckily there’s tons of Ask a Manager content that’s still accessible for free.

      1. MassMatt*

        This comes up almost every time there are links to content on other sites. Alison has repeatedly asked that we not post these sort of workarounds, as these links are how writers (including her) get paid for for their work.

    4. Hiring Mgr*

      When you click the article link you should see a pop up with subscription options. I think you just get immediate access once you sign up

    5. Nitpicker*

      Subscribing to Inc digital only is not that expensive and they have a lot of other good stuff. I get a daily newsletter with links to highlighted articles (including Alison’s) many of which are really helpful.

    6. Dust Bunny*

      The subscription is really cheap and it’s how AAM gets paid. Or you can just skip the paid articles since most of her content is free on here, anyway.

  4. Reality Check*

    I feel like I could be the employee in #1. I’ve recently come down with a chronic autoimmune condition that is sending my stress levels off the charts. It would be extremely helpful if my employer would sit down and have a conversation with me about it. Lightening the workload would certainly help, as well as not being visibly annoyed with the employee for having the health problem in the first place. (not saying OP is doing that, but some are doing that to me.)

    1. Emily*

      You are likely going to have to be the one to initiate the conversation with your employer. It’s great if employers do it on their own, but they are also not mind readers and could be thinking “If Reality Check needed something they would let us know.”

      1. Reality Check*

        True. Part of it is I’m afraid they’ll just kick me to the curb. That may or may not be true but the fear is there nonetheless. My employer does not give off a supportive vibe.

        1. ferrina*

          Do what you need to do to protect yourself.
          You don’t have to tell them if you don’t want to. Sometimes you can fly under the radar. I had a boss that did that for months- her entire team knew she was vanishing, but her own boss had no idea. (Both Boss and Grandboss were pretty incompetent, so we just stayed out of it). Put exclamation points in your emails to fabricate more energy when it isn’t there.

          If you feel comfortable testing the waters, you can have a conversation “just to know what my options are”. Try to have this conversation with HR or whoever manages your benefits; they can talk you through different types of leave or sometimes potential ADA accommodations (though this will probably need to be approved by your boss, so the accommodations may not be guaranteed).

      2. Dog momma*

        As someone who went through major surgery and chemo, I don’t understand how anyone could work, even PT while undergoing that. Don’t most businesses offer short term disability after your sick leave/ PTO?
        I have had/ still have major chemo fog that’s getting much better but still trips me up. I was so tired that it was hard to get out of bed for more than a couple hrs at a time. And if I over extend myself, I still get exhausted, a year later. Even though I’m working on endurance. Take your leave LW’s. Its not worth a health setback.

    2. grape seed*

      As someone who has an employee with chronic health issues, please talk to your boss and HR about accomodations.

  5. I should really pick a name*

    #4 seems really passive to me

    Most of us have just deployed headphones, until the newbies catch on

    It’s not rude to say “this is an open-office setup, so we ask everyone to keep the noise down”. Expectations should be set, not inferred.
    Similarly, it’s not rude to ask someone to vacate the conference room when you need it.

    1. Czhorat*

      Quieting people is a hard thing, and can be very culturally dependent. Some places people like to chat with eachother and that’s one of the advantages of being in a physical office and not at home. Some worksplaces have a more quiet vibe.

      If you’re the team librarian shushing co-workers that could end up hurting your work relationships, even if they are being objectively inconsiderate.

      1. I should really pick a name*

        There’s a difference between shushing and politely asking people to be quiet.
        Though yes, the message would ideally come from management, not a co-worker.

        The letter suggests that this office is meant to have more of a quiet vibe, so that should be communicated.

      2. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        “We all work pretty silently and keep distractions to a minimum.” Sounds like the current culture is pretty quiet.

    2. kiki*

      It may also be that the newbies aren’t really doing anything wrong or are being extraordinarily loud– they just have a lot of questions that are better talked through aloud or are getting some training, etc. That’s how I interpreted “until the newbies catch on”– that once they know their jobs better, there won’t be as much talking.

  6. Moonlight*


    I wonder if it would be practical to make some kind of shared room booking thing with an accompanied policy about leaving the space 5 minutes before a meeting is scheduled?

    I have ADHD and would need to be able to use a conference space if I worked in an open concept off like the coworker is doing to be able to focus. If my office had a viewable booking template where I could see when people needed the room, I’d leave a few minutes before the meeting if I could see that info (or even just posting a spreadsheet outside the space). This could be helpful for other people who might want to book the room for meetings as well so there’s no conflicts.

    1. L-squared*

      Yeah, this is the solution here.

      My open plan office has this. And, in general, if nothing is booked, I’ll go somewhere and use it for as long as I feel like it. But if people know they will need it, its easy enough to just go on the calendar and book it.

    1. Emily*

      Nesting fail, this was supposed to be a response to “I should really pick a name” ‘s comment.

  7. Czhorat*

    The problem with the last employee (camping in the conference room to get quiet) is an open-plan office issue, not an employee issue.

    Some people find that sound masking helps in open plan areas, even though it doesn’t make things technically quieter (literally the opposite). If that isn’t feasible, there are few good options other than wearing noise-cancelling headphones all the time, which create a whole different set of issues.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      I worked at a company that had an open office setup. The first floor had a noisy HVAC system; as a result, two people could have a quiet conversation without half the floor hearing. The second floor had no white noise, so no one ever talked at all. I once had a coworker IM me to ask if her breathing was too loud.

      In my opinion, white noise is key. Unfortunately, most noise-cancelling headphones are really good at canceling out ambient white noise, which made whispers on the other side of the room clearer and more distracting.

      1. Czhorat*

        That’s why I said sound masking; it’s essentially installed white noise (or similar) for the purpose of raising the noise floor to reduce intelligibility of overhead conversations. It makes the space FEEL much better.

        I *always* recommend sound masking for open office areas in any corporate office space.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Oh yes, I was supporting with your recommendation with my own experience. White noise matters.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      Not everyone can take months and months of leave because its simply not offered and they can’t afford to take unpaid leave.

      Alternately, an employee dealing with a long-term issue, likely has times when they do need to be off and not working but also times where they don’t and don’t want to sit around at home – but are still not at their peak.

      1. lilsheba*

        That is what’s wrong with the US, we need to make it so every employee can be on paid medical leave while dealing with an illness so they can get better! If other countries can do it so can we.

        1. Ace in the Hole*

          Even countries that offer extended periods of paid medical leave, it’s often only a percentage of income. For example, the European Commission gives sick leave at 60% of workers pay. That’s far better than US national standard of “none,” but similar to short-term disability benefits offered by some states. Unfortunately, for many people 60% of income is not enough to avoid serious financial hardship.

        2. Starbuck*

          I’d counter that with, not just every employee – every adult human! But, yes, we know.

    2. I am Emily's failing memory*

      Maybe she would rather keep working – people going through major upheavals sometimes feel like continuing to work helps because they need something to focus on that isn’t their illness. Maybe she can’t afford medical leave – in many countries disability pay is only a percentage of your normal pay, and especially if they’re in a country where they’re on the hook for medical bills that are piling up, receiving only 60% of their usual salary might not be enough to meet their basic expenses.

      1. WillowSunstar*

        Well that and she probably needs to be able to afford her medical bills also. As an American, I’m more than willing to admit that my country pretty much fails when it comes to a. affordable medical care and b. workplaces offering more than a few days of medical time off, and the like.

    3. MigraineMonth*

      If they’re in the US, fully paid medical leave is pretty rare. FMLA doesn’t say you need to pay them, it only says you can’t give away an employee’s job (and only kicks in if the employee has been there over a year and the business has over 50 employees). Some jobs offer short-term disability insurance, but generally a) the employee has to opt-in in advance and b) it only pays a percentage of the employee’s salary.

      When I was out for 6 weeks following major surgery, I blew through 2 years of sick days and several weeks of vacation. A lot of medical conditions last much longer than that.

      1. Avril Ludgateaux*

        FMLA doesn’t say you need to pay them, it only says you can’t give away an employee’s job (and only kicks in if the employee has been there over a year and the business has over 50 employees)

        And FMLA also only protects your job for 12 weeks per year starting from the first day of FMLA leave.

        Also, the employee must have worked for 1250 hours in the 12 months prior to initiating the leave. If you were employed for a year, but you took (even approved, paid or unpaid) leave such that you only worked 1249 hours, you do not qualify until you hit 1250 hours worked.

        I can’t find a clear answer on if there is a “lifetime limit” on FMLA, i.e. if you can only take it so many times within your career/tenure at a specific employer before they can legally dismiss you.

        I’m sorry for my language but FMLA fucking sucks. It is the worst solution. And we are meant to be thankful that we even have that, because most of us are dependent on employer-provided health insurance so if we lose our jobs while sick we will quite literally die.

      2. grape seed*

        And it should be mentioned that many employers in the US don’t separate sick days from vacation time. Mine certainly doesn’t.

    4. Gerry Keay*

      Paid medical leave doesn’t pay 100% of your salary. STD pays around 60% here in California and that’s… not livable for many people.

    5. I'm Just Here for the Cats!!*

      Unless the employer offers it there is no universal paid leave in the united states. FMLA is unpaid, just guarantees the job when they come back.

      Also, sometimes even if there is paid time it is a fraction of the employee’s actual wages.

    6. Dust Bunny*

      Or maybe they haven’t asked for it.

      Several people upthread said they kept working through serious illnesses because they wanted to keep a sense of normality in their lives. They regretted it later, but at the time they didn’t think they wanted to ask for leave.

  8. L-squared*

    #3 As Alison says, this isn’t a problem. I’m not even sure where the issue comes in. Its not fair of her to use an empty room, even though she will leave when asked? So you want it to stay empty for some reason?

  9. e271828*

    For #4, if the volume is up because of people *not* using headphones, then management needs to require them and supply them.

    If volume is up just because more people make a louder background noise, then management needs to see this affect productivity before they’ll give a toot.

    If Laptop Camper is working at the same level as everyone else, it is understandable but unfair that she snags the conference room to improve her personal working conditions. Your real problem, collectively, is that someone higher up decided to put you all in a cattle pen, and they will not consider it a problem until they get a lot of complaints and then key employees leave calling out the noise. Since this is an old letter, I hope you’re all WFH now.

    1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      I don’t see how it’s “unfair.” She’s the only person with a laptop so she’s the only person who can work there, and she leaves when people need it for other stuff.

      1. Marna Nightingale*

        It’s not unfair OF HER, it’s just unfair in general that something so basic to people’s ability to get their work done is only available to her through a quirk of luck, and others can’t get it.

      2. I am Emily's failing memory*

        There’s a social dynamic to “she leaves when people need it” that can make people reluctant to ask someone to leave.

        It’d be sort of like someone keeping the office’s only fan on their desk, running every day, and saying of course anyone else can use it whenever they need to. Some people would find themselves deciding some amount of the time, “Eh, I don’t really NEED a fan that badly, I can do without,” because they don’t want to feel like they’re the person who took the fan away from someone else who was actively using it…but they will still resent that one person is actively using the only fan all the time.

        1. L-squared*

          But it seems that if no one is using it, then its sitting empty.

          In your fan example, if no one else is using the fan, why should it matter if one person wants it at their desk. Is it better to collect dust.

  10. IndyDem*

    For LW #4, part of the issue to me would be how often or how long is she in this space. As LW said, it’s a shared space to take/make a phone call or have meetings, so if she’s using it for an hour to focus, that’s not bad, but is she is camping there all day, so every other employee has to ask her to leave so they can use a shared space, that’s not cool.

    I also have to disagree with Allison, because even if it’s mostly unused space, it’s there for calls and meetings, not for this person’s personal office space. If I have a quick call to make or to take, but then I have to waste time asking this person to leave and then wait for them to do so, it becomes a less quick call.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Except why would she leave if nobody else seemed to want the space? She’s leaving as soon as someone asks; there’s not really any reason for her to leave before she’s asked and then leave the room empty.

  11. learnedthehardway*

    I would have a conversation with her to point out that you recognize she is under tremendous stress right now, and that you are seeing an impact in her work. I would say that she is a very valued employee and that you need to build some supports around her to make sure that she is protected. Get her to help you determine what those supports would be, but don’t make them optional. Stress that they are needed but also temporary and that they can be revisited as she adjusts to her new reality.

  12. DannyG*

    I have through the bereavement leave process when my wife died suddenly. The mental dysfunction at such a time is incredible. If it wasn’t for family and friends walking me through the three weeks I took off I would have not been able to function at all. If he doesn’t have a good support system I could see him being in a total daze and not even thinking about work.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I agree. In similar situations I have had difficulty tracking what day it is and what I was expected to do from hour to hour. For this employee it may be appropriate to recalculate the return date, and to check in the day before to see if anything has changed.

      1. DannyG*

        Thanks. Almost 9 years ago but still can seem like yesterday. An old friend made me eat, drove me to the funeral home, helped me make arrangements. Our former foster daughter sat with me through the evening & handled the phone, first friend came back and sat with me all night as I couldn’t sleep. Family got here the next morning. College friend who was a LCSW took my 3AM phone call and helped immensely. Church ladies cooked for us for a week. Crying now thinking of how everyone wrapped themselves around me and carried me. Department director told me to take whatever time I needed, no questions asked.

    2. J*

      I know people here act as if days should be enough to deal with funeral leave but there really should be a separate grief leave accessible. I had a loss in 2021 that caused brain fog nearly as bad as my chemo brain was more than 15 years earlier. It’s perfectly normal to have that kind of brain fog with grief but most still don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge it. I knew I’d been operating at a capacity higher than my coworkers prior to the death so I scaled back to their level and just let things fall through the cracks if necessary. The couldn’t exactly punish me for being equal to the team, I had no leave options, and I was not going to perform to my normal capacity no matter what.

      I’m quite sorry about your loss. I can empathize with it still feeling so recent.

  13. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    LW#1 As someone currently in a similar situation I would say talk to the employee about temporary reduction of workload and/or hours. Take enough off her plate so that she can focus better on what she has. She is a valued employee and the best thing you can do for the company is to make sure the job is a positive aspect of her life.

    Stress isn’t great for recovery either.

    I have great coworkers and the only reason I am able to be back at all is that they are all understanding that I am not back at 100% and won’t be for quite awhile.

  14. Kindred Spirit*

    For letter #4: those open office setups, are really the worst. I find people talking around me and other ambient noise distracting, and some people have just one volume level— loud. I used to share a cube wall with someone like that. I would politely ask him to talk more quietly; he’d apologize, and he’d follow through. For about 5 minutes. Then he’d forget and revert to his usual volume. You could hear him laugh from the other side of the building.

    Back then, knowing everyone could hear everything, if I needed to take a personal call (e.g., from my doctor, the kids’ school, daycare, etc.) that I didn’t want everyone to hear, I would duck into an open conference room for a few minutes. This was common behavior among my coworkers. I would have felt awkward and a bit resentful if a coworker had appropriated the (apparently only) private space to use as her office.

  15. Green great dragon*

    LW1 this reads like a workload issue to me. She feels she’s getting behind, so she’s trying to get things off her plate fast, and not talking the time to think them through, or check for other emails making hers redundant, or check her notes or memory. It’s the sort of error I make when my workload’s too high anyway, no other stressor required.

  16. Somehow_I_Manage*

    For letter number 1, very tough situation with lessons to be learned on both sides:

    For the LW, you can’t control everything, but you can facilitate making information available to empower your employee. Seek feedback from HR on options for dealing with this situation. It could include regularly deploying PTO, reducing hours, or FMLA. Give your employee the information they need to make a decision. The other thing you can do, is recognize that at this moment, your employee needs an adapted role- ideally less on their plate, and probably more regular check-ins to help set priorities.

    For the employee, if you have the bandwidth, try to recognize that the best thing you can do is to ask for what you need. If you need time off, fewer hours, or fewer projects- make it clear. Empower your manager to help you by advising them on your needs. To the extent you can at least.

  17. Spencer Hastings*

    If my manager told me “you’ve bristled in the past about X”, I’d be really uncomfortable, like they were telling me I’d behaved inappropriately. But that could just be a me thing.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      . . . except maybe bristling was at least borderline inappropriate? Sometimes managers need to give feedback that is uncomfortable.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        Then maybe it should have been brought up at the time, if it was an issue that needs to be corrected? The way it was used in the script, it seemed like it was background context.

        I don’t know, it just seems to me like an unnecessarily adversarial way of conveying an underlying message more like “I don’t want to micromanage you, it’s just that the way we deal with X needs to change temporarily.”

  18. Melissa*

    One thing to note is that with a serious illness, often the highest level of anxiety and stress comes right after the diagnosis. You mention that you’re worried her concentration problems will worsen as her illness progresses— but I wouldn’t assume that. Often, people are most overwhelmed right at the beginning. Even if it is a progressive illness, she is likely to gain some measure of equilibrium in coping with it (emotionally I mean) as time passes. I would deal with what is happening now, and not try to predict whether her problem will worsen or not.

  19. Theyendure*

    LW1, it brought me to tears reading about your willingness to meet your employee where they are. It would have done me so much good to have the same when I went through cancer.

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