When an employee has been on sick leave, returning back to work can require some adjustment; not only for that person, but for their co-workers and manager, as well.
As a team, you can make this an effective transition! Here are some tips on how to successfully welcome back an employee returning from sick leave.
Understand what the employee is going through
First thing’s first. The reason behind an employee being on sick leave can vary from physical to psychological (mental), from short-term to long-term, and even in intensity.
If it’s a physical issue, such as severe back pain, it can sometimes be easier to grasp than a mental issue that’s stemming from a deeper place. Doctor reports or psychological assessments can provide you with a lot of information, though always keep in mind that a recovery process is very unique to each individual. You must treat it on a case-by-case basis.
Keep in touch with the employee on sick leave
If at all possible, and with the consent of the person on sick leave, try to touch base once in a while before their return. Do this for the purpose of maintaining a connection and rapport, as well as to catch up on their progress, not for discussing work projects or upcoming deadlines. If he/she professes an interest in hearing about the latest news at work, then you can provide them with company updates, but be mindful not to trigger more stress. Know how to identify work stressors.
Communicating once in a while with this person leading up to their return may help them feel a lot less “out of the loop”, especially if they are very reserved to begin with and are less likely to initiate contact.
Create a sick-leave return plan
When an employee is transitioning back to work from sick leave, you can’t just wing it. You need an action plan! There are a few things you need to consider. For instance,
- Will they be returning on a full- or part-time basis?
- Do tasks need to be modified for them, at least at the beginning? (tasks that are deskbound, tasks that demand less direct contact with clients, less stress, etc.)
- Are there any restrictions? (are they as mobile, can they use the stairs, do you need to change their workstation, etc.)
- Do tasks need to be delegated off to other co-workers?
You should also meet with your existing team prior to an employee’s sick-leave return to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Have a discussion with their co-workers about how they are feeling about the return of their colleague, and if they have any questions or apprehensions. But remember to always try to keep it positive. You want to create a warm and welcoming environment for this person to come back to, not one filled with concern.
If applicable, you may also want to remain in communication with their case worker, doctor or other professional support systems in case there are special needs and/or limitations that you should be made aware of. Together you can create a transition plan tailored to the employee’s specific condition.
Meet and greet the person who returns from sick leave
If not you, make sure you assign someone suitable to meet with and greet this employee when they walk in. Don’t leave him/her alone to get set up.
Create a check list or agenda to ensure that everything is being covered. For example, reacquainting them with their workstation, helping them get set up with the computer, emails, and any new software they might need to be introduced to, bringing them up to speed with what’s been happening in the company during their absence.
Remain patient and supportive. If the person returning is a little slower and a little less engaged, just go with their flow. If they need breaks, allow them to do so. It’s their first day back after all. There will be a better time to encourage employee engagement. But for now, adapt to their transitional needs.
There are co-workers that are reserved by nature; who don’t like to talk about their personal life or have the spot light on them. If a person returning from sick leave has this tendency, he/she may feel even more anxious about coming back and having all eyes on them. Let’s face it, even the most outgoing people can find this transition difficult!
So respect their privacy and their choice to divulge (or not to divulge) certain aspects of their sick leave. Don’t stare, bombard them with questions, or overdo your act of sympathy by treating them like victims. Just letting them know that you are happy to see them back, and are available should they have any questions or need support, is a good start.
Bend without breaking
Returning back from sick leave can have its hurdles, therefore a transition plan must remain flexible. As a manager, if you are very firm in your ways and/or extremely results-oriented, you might want to rethink your expectations for the first few weeks.
There may be flexible hours, shortened work weeks, working from home, doctor appointments and other obligations that need to be considered.
Know your employees, know yourself
Knowing the personality of your employees can save you a lot of energy when trying to figure out how to address certain issues, communicate effectively and motivate them the right way. This is especially true for someone returning from sick leave.
If their resistance to stress suggests they have difficulty detaching, receiving comments or criticism, and in need of constant encouragement, then you will need to pay attention to these tendencies and take a look at your own personality. Are you one that doesn’t demonstrate empathy that easily? Are you more resilient than most? Maybe you tend to get over things more quickly than others? Whatever the case, it’s important to know your employees natural reflexes as well as your own.
An employee returning from sick leave can be a smooth transition if you are prepared and informed. Understand where they are coming from, communicate internally to ensure co-workers are at ease, and have a plan with enough flexibility to consider new restrictions and/or engagements. Welcome returning employees with support, understanding and respect, and appoint the right person to assist them in their transition, especially in the first few days. Knowing their innate personalities as well as your own will also help you approach and motivate them the best way possible.