Last reviewed: 10 January 2022
As a manager you will occasionally need to deal with uncommon and potentially serious situations. Read here to find out more about what to do if a colleague is unexpectedly absent from work, expresses suicidal feelings or after experiencing a traumatic incident
What to do if someone doesn’t turn up for work
Your organisation will have guidelines for what to do if employees and colleagues can’t come into work if, for example, they are sick. Most organisations ask employees to call or contact their manager by a certain time after they were supposed to be at work.
What if someone in your team doesn’t come into work and doesn’t contact you?
- First check if they have been in contact with anyone else such as colleagues they get on well with, HR or another manager and check with reception whether they have left a message.
- Try their mobile telephone (both work and personal if they have them) and any landline telephone number recorded in their personnel file. You will need to talk to the HR team before doing this.
- If you can’t get hold of them on these numbers find the person listed as their emergency contact and explain the situation. They might be able to go to where the person lives to see if they are alright.
- In some cases, you might not have an emergency contact. This might be because the person doesn’t have anyone (or anyone in this country) to contact, or the numbers given may no longer work. In this situation you can contact the police if you are worried about the individual.
- You should tell the police if you have reason to be seriously concerned about the person’s safety, for example if they have talked recently about suicide. They may act sooner in such cases.
What to do if you can’t contact an absent employee
If you suspect their absence could be related to serious mental ill-health or other illness, it is possible that the person has been admitted to hospital. The hospital will notify the person’s own doctor about their admission, but their doctor will not pass this information on to an employer, and neither will the hospital. The only way you will find out is if the person asks someone to tell their employer – which they might not be in a position to do for a while.
Do what you can to try to contact the person or someone close to them, but remember that they might not be able to contact you. Do not assume that they have resigned. They will hopefully recover after receiving treatment and be ready to return to work with the support of their colleagues and of course you – their manager.
If you do find that they have been in hospital or if they call in sick, don’t be afraid to contact them. The worst thing you can do is to ignore and avoid them altogether. They might not want to see you in person or to speak to you, but they will appreciate a card or flowers just as if they would if they had been in hospital after a car accident. Do let them know that they are missed and that you look forward to seeing them back at work when they are ready.
Your HR team may have their own policy and process in these kinds of cases, so remember to seek advice and follow the exiting process if there is one.
Managing someone who says they feel suicidal
In rare cases someone might confide that they are feeling so low that they don’t want to live anymore or that they have been thinking about suicide. It is very difficult to hear this from anyone – whether a colleague, friend or family member. It is not uncommon to feel helpless in these circumstances.
There are, however, things you can do, and it is always better to try to talk to the person and do something rather than nothing:
- Ask the person if they will contact the Samaritans or if you can help them make that call or email. The number is 116 123 or they can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Ask HR to check their personnel file and if you have immediate concerns about their health and safety call the person listed as their emergency contact.
- Encourage the person to speak to your Occupational Health adviser, Employee Assistance Programme or mental health first aiders if you have them.
Sometimes these might take the form of throw-away comments or off-colour jokes. It might be tempting to dismiss these, but if you have any concerns whatsoever it’s always better to talk to the person and do something than to do nothing.
If you think someone is at immediate risk of harming themselves, call the emergency services. You need trained professional help in these circumstances.
After a traumatic event
You might be unlucky enough to be at work during after a traumatic event such as:
- the death of a colleague. This might have been expected or sudden or even as a result of suicide
- a terrorist incident
- a serious accident where people were injured or killed
- a natural disaster.
Immediately after the event
Immediately after the event, it is common for people to feel shocked or numb. They might be stunned, dazed and unable to connect with their feelings or what’s going on around them.
Alternatively, people might be in denial. This can come across as being strong or coping well or even as not caring about what has happened.
At work, this can mean that some people are completely unable to carry on with their work and others will try to “carry on as normal” and try to get back to their work as quickly as possible.
Either of these reactions is normal, and neither of these reactions will last. Over a period of hours or days these feelings will fade.
Employees who need a short leave of absence from work following a traumatic event should be allowed it where possible. Asking people to keep working while they are traumatised can only compound their problems, and potentially cause them longer-term mental health problems.
What happens next?
Everyone is different and will take different amounts of time to process their feelings. Common reactions are feeling:
- Frightened – that the same thing will happen again, or that they might lose control of their feelings and break down.
- Helpless – that something really bad happened and they could do nothing about it. They can feel helpless, vulnerable and overwhelmed.
- Angry – about what has happened and with whoever they feel was responsible.
- Guilty – that they have survived when others have suffered or died. They may also feel that they could and should have done something to prevent it.
- Sad – particularly if people were injured or killed, especially someone they knew.
- Ashamed or embarrassed – that they have these strong feelings they can’t control, especially if they need support from others and they might well resist support
- Relieved – that the danger is over and that the danger has gone.
- Hopeful – that their life will return to normal. People can start to feel more positive about things quite soon after a trauma.
Colleagues might also experience physical symptoms such as:
- an inability to sleep
- feeling very tired
- dreaming a lot and having nightmares
- poor concentration
- memory problems
- difficulty thinking clearly
- suffering from headaches
- experiencing changes in appetite
- experiencing changes in sex-drive or libido
- aches and pains
- feeling that their heart is beating faster.
What can you do to help?
Give people time
It takes time – weeks or months – to accept what has happened and to learn to live with it. Some may need to grieve for what (or who) they have lost.
Tell them what happened
It is better to be open about the reality of what happened rather than forcing your employees and colleagues to wonder about what might have happened.
Enable involvement with other survivors
Going to funerals or memorial services might help people to come to terms with what has happened. It can help to spend time with others who have been through the same experience.
Provide details of counselling services that your employer provides for employees. It can be a relief to talk and cry some people don’t feel they can do this with family and friends
Allow time off from work
Some people might want to be alone or just with those close to them.
Return to regular routines
Slowly return to “business as usual” routines for people who are at back at work and allow people to do “normal” things again.
After a trauma, people are more likely to have accidents. Be extra vigilant around people who are driving or operating machinery.
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