As a line manager, you may have questions on how best to support your employee to return to work after serious illness or injury. What to do, what not to do, etc. On top of that, it’s not easy when a team member suddenly becomes seriously ill or has a serious injury and they are on long-term sick leave. You have to reorganise priorities, who is doing what, and may still be expected to get all the work done regardless of having one less person in the team. That can add to any pressure you may already be feeling. There is also the genuine concern you feel for your colleague.

When you hear that your employee is ready to return to work, there is that sense of relief. They will be able to take back the elements of their job you and others may have been doing so you want to help them get up to speed as quickly as possible. And the team will be complete again.

Given your employee may still be recovering from their health issue as they return to work, I share some of the finer points of what to do (and what not to do) to help you support your employee.

What I’ll share here regarding helping an employee return to work after serious illness or injury

Rather than focus on HR policies and employment law, what I’ll share here are the subtle and often unseen aspects which can help the employee’s return to work or derail it. Knowing about them will enhance your ability to relate empathically with your employee and support them, which is a key ingredient for a working relationship built on trust. This in turn can enhance employee engagement and loyalty. I have accumulated the information and advice I will share in this series over 8 years from my personal experience returning to work after a serious illness, supporting a loved in the same position, coaching clients, and supporting many other people through a charity I led. And if you are the employee returning to work, you’ll find something of value here too.

supporting employees returning to work after serious health issue line manager concerns

A line manager’s concerns. B Babcock 2017

Don’t assume that ‘recovery’ means your employee is ‘cured’ 

In our society, recovery from illness or injury is often assumed to mean that the person goes back to the way they were prior to the illness/injury and will be able to function and be the same person as before. Your employee may recover from the worst of the illness/injury but their body may be changed forever.

They may not have the stamina to work 8am to 7pm for any stretch of time, if at all. Or they may have acquired a disability. Or they may have ongoing symptoms which they need to manage. Sometimes these disabilities or symptoms are invisible such as continence issues, fatigue, chronic pain, or mental health issues. These can impact what your employee can do, where they can do it, how they do their job, and even impact the extent to which they can take part in work-related social activities.

So the commonly understood meaning of ‘recovery’, i.e. the person is ‘cured’, is often misplaced with many illness and injuries. If we as line managers assume our employees are ‘cured’, but that is not the case, we can end up having unrealistic expectations of the employee and their current capabilities. A downward spiral in the relationship can start.

Don’t expect your employee to go from zero to hero quickly


return to work after illness

From zero to hero. The hope when returning to work after long-term sick leave. B Babcock 2017

Organisational policies may provide guidelines on how long a phased return to work typically takes and there may also be unspoken expectations. Even though your employee may have been through the acute phase of recovery, their bodies may still be in recovery mode when they return to work. Also, recovery isn’t always a straightforward process. Setbacks are common and they can cause delays in the phased return to work. So your employee may not go from zero to hero according to explicit or implicit time expectations.

For example, if your employee has been treated for cancer and given the all clear, they may still experience fatigue and what is known as ‘chemo brain’  from the treatment they’ve had. This will impact how long they can work and how much they can do when they are there.

Or an employee has a heart attack at a young age. Just when they start the phased return to work, chest pain sets in which means commuting is impossible and more tests are needed to determine what is going on. The employee is back on sick leave.

Remember that your employee is also adjusting psychologically to what they’ve experienced

To the changes in their body and the impact that has had on their wider life. This adjustment can take time. They may also be managing their fears, concerns and hopes regarding their return to work:

  • What do I say to people? Do I want to say anything? What will they say to me?
  • Will I cope ok? How much will I be able to do? Can I do the job? I hope so.
  • Will I be seen as not coping, looked over for projects and promotions? Or worse, will I lose my job?
  • I just want to be seen as normal.

And maybe even,

  • Do I still want to do this job?

All this can be a lot for your employee to be experiencing. Given that and the recovery process is often not predictable, the phased return may not follow pre-defined timescales. I have seen phased returns take up to a year.

How can you support your employee to return to work after serious illness or injury?

Be mindful what you think recovery means

Be mindful of how you view recovery in the context of illness/injury. Think about what you expected and assumed of yourself the last time you were ill, even if it was a cold or flu. I write this because we can end up acting on what we assume a recovery should be without awareness of that. If a person’s recovery does not match our definition, then misunderstandings can happen and suspicion creep in. Being aware of our own approach to recovery can help us keep our own biases and assumptions in check and make different choices in how we relate to people.

Recovery doesn’t work to business timescales

Sometimes the recovery doesn’t go to plan despite your employee doing everything they can to maximise it. We do have influence over our bodies, but we can’t directly control everything about it (people can directly control their breath, mind, and muscles). It’s frustrating for you as the line manager as you were looking forward to having the team be complete again and moving forward. It’s frustrating for the employee too and sometimes scary when there’s a setback in recovery.

Reasonable adjustments can make all the difference

As your employee may be dealing with long-term physical and/or psychological changes, reasonable adjustments are important and maybe even changes to the role they do. Be prepared to educate your employee on the concept of reasonable adjustments, how the process works, and that it is a collaborative effort between you both. In my experience supporting people returning to work, many employees do not know of this concept and what is possible. There can also be an expectation that the employer mainly sorts it out. Help them to help you by empowering them with the knowledge.

what are reasonable adjustments

Explaining reasonable adjustments. B Babcock 2017

As you work together to determine the reasonable adjustments to make or even permanent changes to the role they do, keep in mind that not everyone can find the words to say how their illness/injury affects them and so what type of adjustments they might need or the kind of role they might be able to do. Also, for some people, talking out loud about their health issues makes the experience so much more real and they may be afraid of that. Or they just might be sick of talking about their health issue. Or your employee may be concerned about how you may perceive them, i.e. being too ‘weak’ to do the job or too ‘needy’.

Get support to support your employee in their return to work after serious illness or injury

This is where working with a coach or counsellor can help. The employee has a confidential place to explore this with the support of someone who can help them find the words to express themselves, identify their needs, skills and strengths. This can enable your employee to come to planning meetings prepared and ready to contribute.

You and your employee may have the same concerns

Lastly, keep in mind that you and your employee can often end up having similar fears, concerns and hopes just from different perspectives. You may be hoping the employee isn’t ‘pulling the wool over your eyes’, the employee is hoping you believe them. Your employee wants to be able to do the job and hope they can, and you want the same.

What’s it like for you?

What have you done to help an employee return to work after serious illness or injury? And when have you seen it not go well? I’d love to hear your examples. Just keep in mind confidentiality and ensure examples cannot identify companies or individuals.

If you have an employee returning to work after long-term sick leave, or you are the employee, and want some support to ensure a smooth enough transition,

have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

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