Things to Consider When Returning to the Workplace After an Absence

Occupational health & wellbeing

In this blog we explore some of the reasons why it may feel difficult, what you as a returning employee can do to make things easier and if you are line managing a returning employee, what to consider.

Returning to the workplace after any absence can seem like a daunting prospect. Whether you’ve been away due to an illness, bereavement or maternity or paternity leave, the idea of returning can feel exciting or quite scary depending on your perspective. Below, we’ll explore some of the reasons why it may feel difficult, what you as a returning employee can do to make things easier and if you are line managing a returning employee, what to consider.

So why would returning feel difficult? After all, you’ve had time off, you are now in theory fit and well or have processed through your reason for absence and should be looking forward to returning? However, whilst you may have changed, the workplace probably hasn’t, which could be reason number one for hesitating on returning. So let’s look at some practical ways to help ease the transition back.

1. If your absence was due to something like overwhelm, burnout or stress, then the causes of those things are likely to still be there. The difference will be in how you as an employee manage them. This is something that a workplace therapist, such as those employed by Response could offer to support. By helping you learn some strategies around boundary setting, work/life balance and confrontation and conflict resolution – returning to work armed with a set of tools in the metaphorical tool kit can make all the difference.

2. A Lack of Self-Belief. Do you believe that you can handle situations where a specific outcome is needed. A simple example is your belief that you have the skills to make dinner and therefore feed yourself and your children. If you truly don’t believe you can cook anything or have the money or ability to order a takeout then dinner time will become extremely stressful. From a work perspective, if you don’t believe you have the skill set or the ability to handle the demands of your job then returning will seem very problematic. Strategies for this could include speaking to your line manager about additional training, asking for a mentor or shadowing someone confident in that role. You may also want to work with a therapist on ways to break the job down into manageable chunks, reviewing if you really are lacking the skills and not simply a lack of confidence in your abilities. If the job appears genuinely above your skill set, then either moving roles or changing companies together may be an option.

3. Lack of social support both in and outside of the workplace. One of the main reasons people look forward to returning to the workplace is social interaction and seeing friends. If you feel genuinely missed by your work colleagues then having the chance to see them again feels like a good motivation to return. But what if it’s not like that for you. If you are alone in your team, have very negative colleagues or felt bullied by a line manager, then the thought of returning to a toxic environment can be daunting. It’s important to look at strategies when returning to help deal with these types of environments. Speaking with a therapist can help you learn how to set boundaries, deal with conflict and call out negative behaviours and comments. Speaking with HR or Occi Health can also help to determine what your rights in the workplace are. But what if the problem appears to be you? Perhaps you are very shy, dislike the social side of things and prefer a much more introverted style of working. The office can still work for you. Learning to understand and accept your working style can be helpful and take the pressure off before returning.

4. For those who are ready to return but feel nervous, KIT (Keeping in Touch) days can be really useful. These are times when you return to work before your actual return date, for a quick catch-up with the boss, perhaps a coffee or lunch with colleagues or a reminder on how to log onto your work computer. By breaking the ice and popping in for 30 minutes – 1 hour before returning, you take the overwhelm out of that first big day back.

5. Demand vs. Control – The demand-control model is a commonly used one which shows the impact of work on employees. In this model, demands are things like work pressures and deadlines. Control refers to the authority or power an employee has when it comes to decision-making. A study by Havaraaen et al in 2016 looked at 543 employees who were off work due to sickness. Those who reported high demand in their jobs had lower return-to-work rates than those with lower job demands. It may not surprise you to learn that those with a higher level of control and authority over their job had higher return-to-work rates than those who felt they have no or little control over their work decisions. So how can you manage to return to a workplace with lots of demand yet little authority? In some cases, it’s a mindset shift. For example, by reminding yourself that you are choosing to be there, you could begin looking for another job for instance. Also, the Locus of Control exercise is a useful way to see the control you truly do have. This theory centres on whether you believe outside forces (i.e. your employer) or internal forces (i.e. your attitude, your decisions, etc.) determine how in control you will feel. A simple exercise includes drawing two circles and labelling one ‘in control’ and the other ‘out of control’ Then fill in some facts in each circle. For example, in control might include: I choose to come to this job each day, I choose to take my full lunch break, I decide what I’m going to say to people at work today, etc. Out of control could include: who my line manager is, if I get to choose particular work assignments, if I have a dedicated parking space, etc. People are often surprised by how in control they are. Of course, nothing will beat a sit down with your line manager to explain what you feel you realistically can and can’t cope with especially when first returning to work.

6. Upon your return you may interact with either your Occupational Health team or your GP. Ensure that you know what is in their return to work report so you can ensure it feels reasonable for you and there are no surprises. It’s also helpful if there is information that will specifically help your line manager understand your needs and restrictions when first returning.

7. A phased return has proven to be helpful for most people. Depending on how long you have been signed off for originally, going from nought to full-time immediately can be overwhelming and lead to further sickness. Organisations such as your GP, Occupational Health team or Response can advise on specific ways to manage this.

8. In addition to KIT days mentioned above, does your organisation have any sort of staff newsletter that can be emailed to you. Anything that keeps you in touch with what’s happening can be useful. However, if this adds to your stress then don’t request one.

9. Begin getting back into the habit of waking up at your normal work time a few days before. Yes, it’s tempting to sleep in late as long as possible, however, the jolt on that first day back can be eased if your body has begun getting used to your normal schedule.

10. Utilise any support available. This could be via your Employee Assistance Programme, organisations such as Response, peer support networks in the workplace or specific support groups that cater to the medical or mental health reason you were off work in the first place. Being involved with individuals who understand your condition is invaluable.

Once you’ve returned to work there are also some ideas which can be helpful. These include:

11. Find out from your manager specifically what they want you to achieve in your first week, month and three months of return. This way it’s clear and you can flag up any potential issues.

12. Ensure that you have regular check-ins with your manager. The extra support may not feel necessary but it’s important to consider it for a least the first month of your return.

13. Develop a WAP (wellness action plan). The MIND website has a fantastic resource for WAPs. This is an action plan not for work but for your well-being which can only enhance your work.

14. See if you are eligible for Access to Work by checking on this link. The Access to Work scheme can offer things like grants to help with practical support to ensure you can work effectively or offer various types of mental health support.

If you are line managing someone who is about to return to work, please review the items above to see how you can play your part in a successful transition back to the workplace. Having a successful employee in your team who has returned to work can ensure that you don’t need to retrain a new individual and often that employee will want to stay with you longer. Some things for line managers to consider include:

1. Scheduling some regular check-ins with that individual whilst they are away (if they agree to this). This ensures the relationship stays solid and they can be kept up to date with things, reducing their anxiety upon return.

2. Finding out if a training package or mentor would be helpful and then organising one.

3. Encouraging a KIT day so their first day back isn’t their actual first day back, thereby reducing anxiety.

4. Taking the time to read any reports that may come with that employee before their return and schedule a meeting as soon as possible (on their first day back is best practice). This enables you both to discuss challenges, and expectations and together work on a WAP so they are set up for success.

5. Ensuring your employee can regularly access you during their first month of return.

Whilst some of these may initially seem time-consuming, the investment up front will pay off in a healthier and more productive employee.


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