Prolonged illness in the workplace

Jun 30 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There are so many things one has to deal with when running a lab that never even crossed the radar previously. A list would be sufficiently boring as to drive people away in droves, but simply employing people directly brings up hundreds of possibilities. One I've never seen solved all that well is when someone in the lab is unable to work for a prolonged time due to factors outside their control.

It could be anything, really. Sickness, accident, the health of a dependent, etc. In certain cases (e.g. pregnancy) where there is some predictability it is possible to plan and even bring in additional help if necessary. Of course, our parental leave policies in the US are too restrictive for there to be an easy mechanism in place, but I've seen a short-term staff member do a great job of keeping the science rolling.

The tougher situations are the unpredictable ones that lack a clear timeline for return. Do you hire someone or wait it out? How does hiring short-term help affect the status and insurance of the person they are replacing? If recovery time is faster, are you on the hook for two people for the length of the replacement contract? Do you just let a project hang until the person returns? There's no formula and few good options. This is doubly true if there is a substantial union process for hiring and the injured/sick person is a staff member. How do people handle these situations?

Perhaps sometimes science just takes a backseat to the health of those doing it.

17 responses so far

  • Jen says:

    I had several emergency surgeries in grad school that kept me out of the lab a total of 12 weeks over a 4-year period. My lab was very supportive - colleagues offered to keep my strains going for me, and the research technician helped me finish a cloning/sequencing project. My PI was surprisingly supportive - after the first surgery, I thought he'd kick me out of the lab (he was a stickler for being in the lab, not taking vacation time, etc.) However, he never made a single negative remark (to my face) about my time away from lab - he was always encouraging, which really helped. He was the same way toward our research tech, who ended up missing three weeks after emergency surgery, and we all picked up the slack for her. It helped that we communicated frequently with one another about what we were working on. Even though we had our own projects, our model system was the same, and we shared common techniques. I recognize that not all labs have these same circumstances, though - I was lucky that it happened to me when/where it did.

  • At the scale of the lab this sort of thing can be an emergency or a disaster---I think you're right that there are no great solutions. At the scale of the college/university this sort of event is either a bump in the road or, depending on the size of the university, a monthly occurence. It should really be dealt with at the institutional level.

  • DJMH says:

    Krzysztof makes a good point but I can't see how the university can help unless they are willing to give the lab money ...and even that can't magically conjure up a temp postdoc who knows how to do the experiments.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's the lab I'm worried about, not the institution. I'm talking about individual projects. The institution doesn't particularly care about micro-managing at that scale, and yes, there's the issue of expertise. Like I said, I don't think there's a perfect solution but I'm curious if others have found something passable.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    I suppose one preemptive approach would be to have one person as a primary lead on a project and another person working as a secondary. That way, one can take over another's work if such an issue arises. This may not be feasible for all labs, especially small ones, but I have heard of labs where each member has a primary project and they contribute to others' projects on a secondary basis. That should provide them with a reasonable amount of know-how on said project.

  • ScienceRules says:

    Our lab came across this problem a year ago. One senior technical staff had unexpected complications due to her pregnancy that required her to go on bed rest 3 months prior to her due date. Luckily, her helper, a research assistant who had only been working part time was there to step in. The research assistant got bumped up to full time, while the senior technical person took disability. It actually turned out the research assistant was VERY good at the job and good thinking on her feet. After maternity leave (8 weeks) the senior tech came back only part time 16-24 hours/week. She had a hard time accomplishing any projects, let alone maintaining her former project which she spearheaded previously for two years because her time was so fragmented. She had a hard time with her new part time role and wasn't communicating effectively to the PI who was upset at her lack of productivity (as she had just been given a substantial promotion just prior to her leave). In the end the senior tech got booted because she was not performing up to her level, while the research assistant, who the senior tech trained, will be hired for another year to complete the project and take on additional responsibilities.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    That kinda sounds like a terrible end result....

  • anonscientist says:

    I have had issues with this, too. I think that the impact on the project/productivity of the lab depends on the size/funding status of the lab. As junior faculty, I currently have a lab that only has one technician in it (no grad students or postdocs, yet). One the one hand, I want to avoid demoralizing individuals who work for me, to encourage loyalty to the PI (me) and to cultivate a positive, fun working environment. On the other hand, I am totally dependent on this technician to maintain his/her end of things in the lab. Thus, in order to have time to conduct experiments of my own, as well as to write grants/papers, I really depend on that technician working regular hours and producing. If that technician is out sick for lengthy periods of time, I currently have no ability to hire a replacement, even part-time, and it really affects my lab's productivity.

    The other thing I have noticed is a subset of individuals who will use paid sick time as vacation time (instead of taking paid vacation days). In order to prevent this kind of abuse, I have had to require my technician to bring in a physician's note whenever he/she calls in sick.

    And, then you have the individuals who abuse FMLA because they don't care about pay, but still want to retain the job because of the awesome benefits.

    Now, if my lab was bigger, I would be less likely to care about these things, but as it is, it's only me and my tech.

  • anonscientist says:

    Oh, and one more thing: even if I were to hire a replacement for a technician who is out sick for a prolonged period of time, I would obviously have to spend time training that replacement (which, again, impacts the ability to produce from my end - less time to do my own experiments and write grants/papers).

  • JustaTech says:

    One lab I worked at had a similar problem, but the cause wasn't a health issue, it was international law. Our one postdoc hadn't had a vacation in 5+ years and needed to go home to China to see her family. We planned everything out for the month she would be gone and it was all fine until she e-mailed the PI saying there was a problem with her visa and she didn't know when she could get back.

    Was this possibly her fault for not checking her visa status, or the institution's for not updating her visa? Yes, but once someone is on the other side of the ocean, blame is not the primary thing. So her project stayed on hold until she got back, and everyone else did other stuff.

  • Dan says:

    I agree with PLS that institutions shouldn't micromanage at this level, but they are the logical folks to provide the financial resources for this. Institutions could effectively provide insurance for each lab in these situations. (The "premium" would be paid for from overhead on grants). This insurance money would be used to hire someone.

    I know this doesn't solve all of the problems, but it does solve a big one: where to find the money in a very tight grant budget to hire someone, and make sure the person on leave still has medical insurance and a roof over their head.

  • anonscientist says:

    One issue with putting a project on hold is that some projects can't be put on hold. In those cases, hopefully the lab can step in to help.

    I have mixed feelings about this issue. I think it totally depends on the situation and person involved.

    It honestly never occurred to me that people abuse paid sick time/FMLA until I observed it happening in my lab and in someone else's lab. I had a great technician 2 years ago, but she left for grad school after a year with me (with a strong reference letter from me - I'm very proud of her). The next hire was the one who abused the paid sick days policy (which is really bad, considering that they only have to notify you the day of, whereas for vacation, at least you have time to plan around the absence). For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone would want to use their paid sick time for non-sick days when they have ample paid vacation, personal, etc. days and they know I wouldn't have any problem letting them take the time off. What happens if catastrophe really does happen and they actually need the paid sick time?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Dan, do you REALLY think the institution is going to leave a big fat chucking of O/H dollars sitting in an "insurance" account? Maybe your institution doesn't work the way mine does.

  • Dan says:

    Hey, I just said that they are the folks who should handle this, not that they would. I know my US Ph.D. institution would have laundered the money to do something like repave the central mall.

    If we had a meaningful national maternity/disability leave policy in the US, then I could imagine a situation where the funder picked up the cost rather than the institution.

  • @PLS: the university could always go for a wage-replacement type of disability insurance on all its workers at the next union contract negotiations. Disability insurance is more of a planned expense and doesn't involve cash sitting around. It makes the financial side of things more predictable for labs too because you know that your grant money is going to go pay for grant-related work...

    I think this kind of insurance is relatively inexpensive because the max payout is limited by the employee's current wages and whatever max duration of time it covers. I don't see why it wouldn't be affordable at the lab level (last time I checked it was even affordable at the individual level) but I bet the university could get a better deal.

  • RP says:


    I'm not sure how it is at your institution, but at most places when you leave the institution they will "pay out" your vacation time.

    People would rather use their sick time than vacation time because when they leave their institution it's like getting a bonus check.

    I'm not saying it's a good thing, but it's motivation for some people.

  • anonscientist says:

    @RP: yes - that was one consideration (that the tech might be leaving and wanted the pay out), but it turned out that the tech just wanted to use up sick days (for 3-day weekend-type mini-vacations) and planned to take a 2-week-long vacation later in the year.

    The frequent day-of notifications for "sick days" drove me absolutely nuts. I would have felt differently if the person actually had been sick, of course. Anyway, when I started to request the physician's note for every sick day taken (first time I'd ever had to implement a policy like that), the behavior stopped.

    I should also mention that this was this person's first full-time job and that this person had been getting [really bad] "advice" about this issue from a delinquent administrative assistant who is known to exhibit the same behavior. Apparently, there is policy at my workplace that can be used to stop this behavior (besides the physician note requirement that is at the supervisor's discretion to implement).

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