Fight the fear of going back to work

Make returning after a long-term absence stress-free

Tackling the issue of returning to work after a long-term sickness can be a tricky business, as a balance needs to be struck to meet the needs of both employee and workplace.

A fifth of those who take more than six weeks off sick end up leaving paid employment altogether, according to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE). If employers and employees and their colleagues work together to manage the return to work, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The first thing employers need to consider is policy – HR experts say workplaces should not leave it until an employee returns to think about a return to work policy. Even if this comes from a good place – its effect can be isolating and serve to increase anxiety.

As an employee, the most important thing to do is focus on your recovery. It’s important to be aware of your rights and responsibilities however. Your rights will differ depending on which country you live in – UK workers can get comprehensive advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). While there is currently no legal requirement for employers to assist a long-term sick or injured employee back into the workplace, the HSE says that good practice in supporting returning colleagues goes hand in hand with good people management. Disabled employees are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act, therefore employers must make sure they make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees returning to work.

When it goes right

John was working for an Oil and Gas company when he had a major heart attack. After surgery, he was off work for six months, but he only has positive things to say about his employer’s conduct. His line manager phoned his wife to reassure her that his salary would continue to be paid as long he needed to be absent from work (UK employers are only legally obliged to pay Statutory Sick Pay for a period of 28 weeks).

“There were some questions about my adventures in the other realm, as my heart stopped, but people were friendly to me when I got back to work. It really helped me to be back at work as it was a relief to feel normal again,” he says.

John reports some difficulties carrying out his duties when he first returned, due to a ‘mushy’ brain caused by lack of oxygen during the cardiac arrest, but found colleagues supportive in ‘cutting him some slack’ until he was back up to speed.

Sam was working in a back office role for a High Street bank when she had to take three months off due to mental health problems. To her relief, she was offered full support by her employer, with a senior manager checking in with her regularly during her absence, not to discuss work, but to see how she was doing.

“When I did go back to work, I was able to do a phased return, and gradually build up my hours until I felt comfortable again,” she says.

What the experts say

HR consultant Lucia Jaskivova said: “Managing someone’s long-term absence and time away from the office starts on the first day of their absence.”

She advises that the HR manager should reach out to the employee and gauge employee’s interest in being involved in the company matters during their absence.

“Some employees will want to heal in absolute privacy and away from work, and some will want to be involved in some way. Proactive and transparent communication, with employees’ wellbeing in mind, needs to be at the forefront of HR practices in this area to manage prolonged leave of absence in an intelligent and human manner.”

She advises scheduling a meeting or conference call at least one or two weeks in advance of an employee’s return, to discuss any issues, such as whether a phased return is desired or possible, and any requirements around workplace adjustments.

She strongly emphasises that the onus is on the employer, not the employee, to manage the return. “It is my firm belief that the employee should never feel like the ball is in their court on the first day back to work. Yes, it’s their responsibility to inform HR and their line manager about timelines of their return, however, it’s the responsibility of the HR and/or line manager to make the employee feel welcome and advise them on their work priorities until the employee is fully settled.”

Avoid overwhelming a returning colleague

As the colleague of someone returning to work after a long absence, you may be absolutely delighted to see them. You may also want them to take back responsibility for their duties that you have been covering while they were away.

While no one likes feeling overworked, you need to check with your line manager before you start piling work on his or her desk to avoid overwhelming them.

Agni Skafidas, also an HR consultant, says priority needs be given to tailoring requirements for the individual, rather than trying to enact a “one-size-fits-all” policy.

“The company, the line manager and team members should respect the individual’s way of handling the illness. Some may want to speak about it while others prefer to keep it quiet,” says Agni.

Life coach Rachel Martin says it’s best to decide what you feel comfortable telling colleagues, then practice saying it and then stick to it. “It is fine to say: ‘I’d really rather not talk about it, but thank you for your concern’. Then ask them how they are instead,” she says.

So…. Are you ready for that first day back?

Being mentally prepared is just as important as feeling physically ready to take the plunge back into work. You may find life coaching techniques can help you walk back into the office with confidence.

Rachel’s advice is to give yourself permission to feel nervous, then take a little time to work out exactly what is bothering you. For example, if you’re worried about walking in alone, arrange for a friendly colleague to meet you so you can arrive together. Remember that it is normal to feel nervous as you have experienced a period of upheaval, she says, and acknowledging that will make you feel more prepared.

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