When you hire employees, you strive to choose the candidates who can best handle the physical and mental demands of the job. But what happens when one of those employees suffers an injury, ailment, or other condition that limits their ability to perform? The answer may vary, but your response to this situation is more important than you may realize.

The ADA and FMLA

First, you should be aware that your response to this situation may have legal consequences. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) makes it “unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability.” If your employee is still able to handle their essential job functions with reasonable accommodation, it may be unlawful for you to fire them or lay them off. That “reasonable accommodation” is key here; you may be required to provide some kind of assistance to keep your employee working in their previous position.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you may also be required to give your employees 12 weeks (or more) of leave in a 12-month period, without repercussions. This leave is unpaid, and may be subject to other requirements.

It also pays to know the best ways to handle specific situations.


If an employee comes down with the flu during work, or doesn’t appear well, the best thing you can do is send them home for the day. Regardless of whether you’re seeing symptoms of the common cold, or the emergence of something more serious, don’t underestimate the human body’s ability to repair itself, given enough rest. Giving employees a break from work can help them heal much faster, ultimately improving productivity, and you’ll also prevent the spread of any contagious diseases.

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TBIs and Other Injuries

If an employee has suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), you should be prepared for a host of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. They may not be able to perform tasks at the same cognitive level as before, or may have difficulty showing emotional restraint. If this is the case, you may need to reallocate some of their responsibilities, or give them leave from work until they’re able to recover.

If an employee is physically injured, you may need to take special measures to accommodate them. In some cases, that might mean giving them a more accessible desk or location within the office, or providing different furniture to accommodate their needs. In other cases, that might mean allowing the employee more flexible hours, or the ability to work from home.

Addiction and Personal Problems

Not all sources of impaired performance are physical in nature. Sometimes, a substance addiction, a problem at home, or a mental health affliction can affect your employee’s ability to do their job. In these cases, you’ll often note a distinct change in the employee’s attitude or pattern of behavior, in addition to declining productivity. The best approach here is to have a frank conversation with your employee and an HR rep, and offer resources where they can get additional help. There isn’t always a straightforward solution to these types of problems, but it’s important to show your support.

Long-Term Disabilities

If an employee finds themselves unable to work at all, a long-term disability plan will likely kick in. If the employee was injured on the job, they may be covered by workers’ compensation. If they were injured or affected outside of the job, they may only qualify for LTD if you’ve had an insurance policy in place for it; some employers pay for these policies, while others share costs with employees. In any case, if an employee can no longer accomplish the tasks associated with their position, you may not have a place for them, and it may be time for them to cash in on a disability benefit.

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General Tips

If you want to be safe, make sure you follow these general tips:

  • Talk to a lawyer. Before doing anything, make sure you talk to a lawyer. They’ll help you understand what legal restrictions you may face.
  • Be accommodating. When you can, accommodate your employee’s injury or illness—especially if they’ve historically been a loyal worker. Sometimes, a small investment or responsibility change is all it takes to make things work.
  • Seek short-term and long-term solutions. Try to find both short-term and long-term solutions to each instance, so you aren’t over-optimizing for only one time period.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do to prevent injuries and illnesses within your workforce. Eventually, one of your employees may find themselves unable to perform the same amount of work or same quality work that they’ve done in the past. Remain patient, and work with them to find an appropriate solution, and maximize your chances of meeting every party’s needs.

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