Panel discussion: Making sense of the broken medical leave system

Our panel discusses the complexities of medical leaves, evolving state and federal laws, and strategies for improving the leave experience.

Nikki Henderson
Nikki Henderson
Panel discussion: Making sense of the broken medical leave system

Despite medical leaves constituting more than half of all FMLA leaves, many People teams are ill-equipped to tackle them for an employee in need. Even when companies offer competitive medical leave policies, putting them into practice across chronic conditions versus sudden emergencies versus mental health concerns, ensuring they’re FMLA-compliant, and staying on top of changing leave laws (just to name a few things) can still be difficult. That’s why we hosted a panel discussion with well-versed experts to give you a lay of the land on the state of medical leaves today, how companies are navigating them, and how to improve the experience for People teams and employees. Continue on to read the recap, or watch the full panel here

Meet our panelists

For this session, we were thrilled to invite Laura Hammond, founder of the HR consulting firm, The People People, who also serves as a Fractional Chief People Officer at Go Fractional. Laura has been an HR consultant for global corporations and tech companies for over a decade. She first implemented Cocoon while serving as VP of People at Tia, and has been a champion ever since. 

Before becoming our co-founding legal counsel, Michelle LaFond worked for over two decades at Unum, a leading disability benefits insurer, across various roles as Managing Counsel, VP of Chief Regulatory Counsel. She also served as the executive sponsor of Unum’s women’s employee resource group, which all coalesced into her leaving to work for Cocoon to help build a better solution for leave takers. 

With her own experience navigating the disability component of a parental leave, Lauren Dai, co-founder of Cocoon, moderated the discussion.

The complexities of medical leaves today

The panel first dove into what medical leaves look like in this day and age, focusing on the complexities that emerge as a result of hybrid work and constantly evolving legal frameworks. As Laura points out, “Companies today are now operating across dozens of states, or multiple countries, with a distributed, remote, or hybrid workforces.” Companies have to navigate the distinct laws and processes that each location demands, meaning a lot of them are turning to interim solutions, or simply aren’t prepared until something happens. Laura also says that though more flexible and/or remote work comes with a lot of benefits, employers are seeing a new crop of mental health issues with employees that they don’t always know how to handle—whether it’s figuring out the paperwork for a mental health leave, or appropriately navigating conversations with an employee who is struggling.

Michelle notes that the legal lay of the land is, “stunningly complex, fast-moving, and continuously evolving.” Though most of us are familiar with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), last summer, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was another major change that went into effect. Though the final regulations are still being ironed out by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers will be expected to provide “reasonable accommodations” to a worker’s known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Congress has also formed a paid leave working group, which Michelle and Cocoon’s other co-founding legal counsel, Frank Alvarez, have submitted comments to

On the state level, 13 states and the District of Columbia now have mandatory paid leave programs (which you can see on our state leave laws map). But they’re all distinct—with different benefit periods and different qualifying events. Six states have passed regulations to allow for the creation of family insurance which can be tagged onto disability insurance. 

Need help drafting (or reviewing) your medical leave policy?

Need help drafting (or reviewing) your medical leave policy?

We worked with our co-founding egal Counsel, Frank Alvarez, to create an interactive medical leave policy generator to give you a starting point.

What to focus on to give HR and leave-takers a better experience

In order to improve the leave experience, Laura says that above all, People Ops teams need to, “make leave administration less clunky by moving away from spreadsheets and into leave management software, like Cocoon.” Doing so gives HR teams easy access to policies, leave plans, and correct payroll calculations. Laura also emphasizes the need to train up managers so they respond accordingly in the moment, keeping company policies and conversational do’s and don'ts in mind.

For leave-takers, Laura says making it easier for employees to plan and manage their leave also helps them set expectations, boundaries, and timelines. This reduces the stress they have around understanding their leave pay, keeping track of paperwork and submission deadlines, and making smooth transitions into and out of work. Michelle emphasizes that employees should feel safe, know what information can be accessed and by whom, and why.

How to address concerns around policy abuse

While HR leaders are always looking for ways to improve the employee experience, the panel also touched on the elephant in the room—fears around medical leave policy abuse. Michelle stresses that you should never make assumptions because, “medical conditions and disabilities are complex and they run the gamut. There are no edge cases—it’s just life! It’s messy and complicated and nuanced.” She also encourages People Ops teams to trust the systems and processes in place to weed this out. “The nature of leave is that there are requirements and conditions to be met, all of which require supporting documentation, and those run their course in the case of any funny business. Additionally, insurance companies have systems in place to prevent and investigate fraud and abuse—it’s a neutral way to get to the right outcome.”

Laura walks viewers through a slightly different scenario that she’s seen crop up more and more often: employees being put on a performance improvement plan that then request a mental health leave of absence. For some employers, it feels like the wrong time and prompts suspicion. But Laura asks companies to first take a step back to better understand the situation, because “you don’t always know what someone is going through. Other factors might be impacting their work performance and anxiety levels.” This is why it’s important to make your employees feel safe in communicating their needs and to use consistent performance management practices so each person is handled and measured using the same standards.

Final takeaways about navigating medical leave

Closing out the discussion, Lauren summarized the top takeaways, with the clearest message being that navigating medical leave is hard, in general as a human, as a leave-taker, or as a People team trying to support an employee. That’s why we have to create an environment where people feel comfortable not only requesting a leave, but also supporting one. Using the leave management software tools and technology at your disposal to handle the hard parts (like state-by-state compliance, claims, and payroll) helps free up HR teams to deliver the best experience and make use of their excellent people skills that likely prompted them to seek out a career in People Ops in the first place. 

It's time to enter the next generation of employee leave