Returning to work after an extended leave of absence is common, but why is it so hard? 

There are plenty of predictable, career-related transitions that occur throughout an employee’s lifetime, but one of the most complicated follows after a prolonged absence. Typically, when an employee leaves for a month or longer, it isn’t for a positive reason, with some exceptions.

Aside from maternity, parental leave, or training, your employees may be returning after a:

  • Physical accident or illness
  • Stress leave or burnout
  • Sickness or death in the family

Regardless of reason, an employee’s leave of absence can be intimidating for your co-workers and yourself. To start this transition on the right foot, let’s take a look at why employees are reluctant to return. Then, we’ll examine policies that can make the transition more comfortable.

The Employee Perspective: Returning to Work

Your employee will have a different response to the transition depending on whether they’re returning back to a familiar role or starting a new one. Let’s look at both examples.

Returning to a Familiar Role

To the Employer

Placing your returning employee back into a familiar role already eliminates most of the hurdles associated with a long work absence. However, they may still experience social or professional disconnect from their co-workers. They may also feel intimidated by their previous work role.

Although your employee will feel a little rusty, it won’t be a cause of concern unless it develops into Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is a condition that involves a person doubting their own abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionally affects high-achieving people.

Even the most minute detail can cause your employee to doubt themselves, and the bigger the hurdle, the harder the strain. Their old role will quickly feel foreign when you add on new management, co-workers, and processes. Focusing on growth will help your employees.

To the Employee

If you’re an employee transitioning back into an old role, it’s important to be aware of these changes slowly. Otherwise, you’ll feel overwhelmed. Try to stay calm and patient while getting back into your role. Your most basic abilities can be developed through determination.

Returning to a New Role

To the Employer

The first obstacle your employee will face is adjusting to their new role. Odds are your employees will want to focus on developing new skills and routines so they feel a sense of accomplishment. Many employees will feel like fish out of water, which will cause them stress.

On the other hand, if you’re hiring a new employee who just came back from a leave of absence, there will be additional roadblocks in place. All employees deserve the chance to return back to work, but be aware that they may need a week to adjust back to a full-time job.

Adaptability is a positive trait to have, so watch for that after you hire them. Employers who want to help their employees transition successfully should put policies in place that provide structure. Set milestones for your employees that map out a successful transition and growth in their role.

To the Employee

Employees may have some difficulties finding a job after an extended absence. We would recommend networking and stating the reason for your absence on your resume. Most employers won’t hold an extended absence against you if you showed growth in that time.

Practical Ideas for Employees

Although this section is dedicated to helping employees specifically, employers should try to implement these ideas for their workers. A successful transition benefits everyone in the company, so being flexible during this time can improve your workplace relationships.

Employees need to also put in the work to transition successfully back into their old role. At the same time, employees have to do everything they can to attract potential employers with their resume, cover letter, and interviewing skills. Here are some practical ideas employees can use:

  • Don’t start on Monday. The first week can feel especially overwhelming, so employees should start on Tuesday and end on Friday. After regrouping on the weekend, the next week should feel easier and more manageable.
  • Get your children used to their new caregiver, if possible, before returning to work.
  • Hire the right mental health support while transitioning. Returning after an extended absence will take its toll, and depending on your circumstances, it can be earth-shaking. If you’re returning after an illness, death, or extended parenting, it helps to have someone to talk to. Employers can help by providing a mental health package.
  • Give yourself a long runaway. It can take 6 months to find a role that pays $60,000 and 12 months to find one that pays $120,000. If you assume your absence will last at least 7 months, start applying for a role as soon as you go on leave.
  • Update your resume and cover letter. We would recommend getting some help from a professional resume and cover letter writer. While you’re at it, take the time to practice your interviewing skills on a non-bias third party. Employers should do their best to consider qualified employees even if they haven’t filled a role in several months.

The best advice we can offer is to keep trying. Current population studies suggest that 16% of Americans aged 18 to 30 took more than 10 days of sick leave and many of them are either rehired in their original place of employment or at another job. 

The Employers Perspective: Developing Policy

Returning to work after a mental health episode, family upheaval, or long-term illness will be difficult for your employees. The organization’s cultural, procedural, and structural practices can determine the success of its reintegration. Use these tips to help manage their leave.

1. Understand Your Priorities

No two employees are alike, and hardly anyone is ready to return to work after an absence. Keep in mind why your employee left, how long they’ve been absent, and what sort of headspace they’re in now, as this will determine your priorities when it comes to training. 

It’s important to stay empathetic while completing your goal towards a comfortable transition. Setting up a pre-return conversation or return period can ease employees through this period.

2. Pre-Return Conversation/Return Period/Keeping in Touch

A pre-return conversation can be as simple as a check-in and as complicated as a questionnaire. Returning employees may transition into different roles, hours or workloads, and it’s important to find a balance between what works for the company and returnee.

Both new and returning employees would benefit from a team lunch or a catch-up session after the pre-return conversation, as this helps them socialize. The final bridge in this 3-step process is offering “Keeping in Touch” days, which provides employees with a flexible work schedule.

Employers can give employees the option of up to 10 paid days to use whenever they wish. They could come once a month, once a week, or during training days. New employees should have more structure, so start at 3-days a week and work your way up.

3. Create a No-Pressure Environment

The US has no federal legal requirements for paid sick leave, but Canada does, and it has led to more relaxed employees. In Canada, employers can’t legally pressure or infer that their job will be lost during their leave of absence. They also can’t coerce them into going back to work.

Employees are already stressed out by lack of wages and the fear that they’ll have no job to return to. It’s unfair to add on to that stress with pressure. Not only will stress halt their recovery, which extends their leave, but it will also make them feel uncomfortable when they return.

Culture is a vital component for how well or badly your employees return after an extended leave. Employers need to ensure that their managers are really interested in the well-being of their team members and that they’re committed to providing support throughout their transition.

4. Hire Empathetic Management

Managers need to be confident and well-trained enough to listen to their team members. All managers require emotional intelligence, patience, and honesty, or your returning or new employees will feel like they’re walking on eggshells.

Employees will often come back to work with a negative attitude towards work, and it isn’t because they’re lazy or unmotivated. Returning employees have likely been through a rough time, or they’re leaving their family/newborn baby to go back to the office. 

Managers can’t take this attitude to heart and instead try to empathize with their situation. Remind your managers that they need to appreciate that they’re back, and it’s their job to transition their employees back into normalcy, not ridicule them for their dip in productivity.

5. Give Structured Support

Managers should be supportive, but if an employee’s productivity hasn’t improved, there may be another underlying problem. Either your employee isn’t receiving enough structure, or they aren’t prepared to go back to work. Employers should schedule a meeting to find the issue.

It’s better to have a structure in place before this happens, but if the problem persists despite the structure, you may need to focus on different performance metrics. This way, you’ll notice difficulties right away and determine if they need further training or another leave of absence.

About the Author

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Mirko Humbert

Mirko Humbert is the editor-in-chief and main author of Designer Daily and Typography Daily. He is also a graphic designer and the founder of WP Expert.