Taking time: How to successfully navigate leaves of absences

By Jennifer Campbell
Apr 2, 2024
Photo credit: piranka/E+/Getty Images

This article is based on Jennifer’s seminar “Taking the On Ramp: How to Successfully Navigate Leaving and Returning to Work,” part of the fall 2023 cohort of CPABC’s Women in Leadership Certificate Program.

Register now for the Spring 2024 cohort (April 8-June 24).


Jennifer will be teaching “Path to Promotion: The Succession Planning Playbook” as a live virtual seminar on July 15.

Have you ever taken a leave from work? Or had to take on extra work to cover for a colleague on sabbatical? Leaves of absence—whether to have a baby, care for others, go back to school, travel, or simply prioritize self-care—cause changes to the status quo. Recognizing this can make the decision to take or grant a leave challenging. An employee may fear negative repercussions—judgment, resentment, career impacts—and an employer may fear disruption and disengagement.

The good news is that with a little collaboration and the right planning and actions, leaves of absence can be beneficial for both parties.

The benefits of leave time

As someone who has taken two maternity leaves and time off to travel the world, I can personally attest to the benefits of time away. My leaves enabled me to focus on my family, learn new skills, and fulfil a dream to travel. I firmly believe that a break from work, even a break you didn’t anticipate, can give you a different perspective—and not only about what’s important, but also about what’s possible. It can enable you to reflect on your goals and decide if you’re currently on the right path.

Organizations can also realize benefits from granting leave time. Research shows that employers who allow for leaves of absence are more likely to:

  • Attract great talent by positioning their organizations as “leave-friendly” places to work;
  • Increase retention, thereby reducing turnover, hiring costs, and knowledge drain;
  • Develop succession-ready candidates and prepare for unexpected absences by giving people the opportunity to cover for others on an interim basis;
  • Increase organizational well-being; and,
  • Generate higher productivity from employees who feel supported in balancing their work demands and personal life needs.

The three stages of a leave

Generally, a leave has three distinct stages: the off-ramp, the leave itself, and the on-ramp. Here’s how employees and employers can prepare for each one:

  1. The off-ramp – preparing for a leave


    • Review your organization’s leave policies to understand the rules and expectations.
    • Wrap up your current projects and actions, where possible.
    • Transition your work to others.
    • Prepare those in your personal life for the change (as much as you can).
    • Remember your successes and write down what you will (and won’t) miss about work.
    • Determine how, and how much, you want to stay connected to your organization while on leave.


    • Make policies clear and accessible for all.
    • Create a leave checklist for managers.
    • Set clear expectations about the actions to be taken by the employee prior to their leave.
    • Address the employee’s concerns and provide reassurance as best you can.
    • Mitigate resentment and build understanding among the individual’s colleagues by answering their questions about the duration of the leave, the potential impact on their workload, etc.—all while protecting the individual’s privacy.
  2. The open road – navigating leave time


    Depending on the type of leave you’re taking, you may have a number of demands on your time. As much as possible, pay attention to these two seemingly simple tasks to help you make the most of your time away:

    • Stay focused on why you’re on leave.
    • Aim to not stress about work.


    • Keep employees who are on leave in mind for upcoming opportunities.
    • Implement a “staying in touch” program in your organization that enables you to maintain a connection to employees who are on leave.
    • Coach replacements to be successful while covering for the person on leave.
  3. The on-ramp – preparing for a comeback


    • Build your confidence by remembering what you’re great at.
    • Set realistic goals and expectations—be patient with yourself, as it can take time to hit your stride again.
    • Make a point of reconnecting with colleagues and peers and refreshing your relationships.
    • Set your intention and choose how you’ll approach each day.
    • Set up a support structure at work and at home—it takes a village!


    • Celebrate their return!
    • Treat returning employees like new employees in terms of support—update their training, review policies and procedures, and highlight what’s changed while they’ve been away.
    • Hold regular check-ins to ask them how things are going.
    • Partner returning employees with mentors and sponsors.
    • Have patience—it can take time for returning employees to get back up to speed.

A joint effort

When my partner and I left our jobs to travel (before we had kids), a lot of people told us: “I could never do that.” But I believe you regret the things you don’t do more than the things you do, and I’ve never regretted taking time away from work. Most people I’ve talked to who’ve taken a leave haven’t regretted it either.

I recognize, however, that it can be scary to think about the potentially negative impact to your income or your career, and that it can be hard for employers to let their great employees take extended time off. That’s why collaboration is key. By taking steps like the ones outlined in this article, both employees and employers can benefit from planned, and even unplanned, leaves.

Jennifer Campbell is a certified coach, seasoned facilitator, and author of the bestselling book Talking Change: Must-Have Conversations for Successful Leaders. She founded Action Impact Movement to enable people and organizations to commit to Action, make an Impact, and create Movement towards their desired results. Jennifer shares her insights on creating beneficial and sustainable change in her free blog and podcasts.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2024 issue of CPABC in Focus.