If you’re helping an employee return to work after a serious health issue, you may be wondering how you can best support them. The employee may have been on long-term sick leave and is keen to return.

You want that too but based on discussions with them, HR and/or occupational health, you have concerns. You may feel it might be too early and are wondering what to do. Should the employee return now or wait a bit?

There isn’t a magic wand answer that works for everyone when helping an employee return to work

That’s because every person, line manager employee relationship, organisation, illness and its recovery process are different. My aim is to explain the reasons people often want to return to work (sometimes early), what to avoid doing and what you can do.

This is the second post in a series for line managers who have an employee returning to work after a serious health issue, and are wondering how they can best support them. Rather than focus on HR policies and employment law, I share the subtle and often unseen aspects which can help an 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, and can enhance employee engagement and loyalty. You can read the first post here.

return to work after illness

The desire to return to work. B Babcock 2017.

Helping an employee return to work often takes more than one person to make it happen

Don’t assume you can sort it all yourself. This is not a situation you may often deal with at work so make sure you get support. You’re learning too. Not speaking to your HR team and any occupational health services you have access to could result in you saying and doing the wrong thing from a legal perspective.

WHAT TO DO: Speak to your HR team, occupational health, and where appropriate other managers who have been through a similar situation. Read information by charities and the NHS about the illness your employee has. I’ve heard many people express appreciation for a line manager’s willingness to learn about their health issue in order to help them have a good return to work.

Don’t assume they would rather be off sick and are returning to work only for the money

I’ve heard line managers say, ‘Yeah, they’re only returning to work because the money the company pays over and above statutory sick pay is going to finish. They always return then.’

Whether or not the employee feels ready to return to work, money could very well be the reason they do so. The employee may be the sole or primary bread winner, may not have much savings, and needs the money to pay their rent or mortgage and/or support their family.

Your employee may have critical illness cover, but their illness/condition/injury may not be covered. If it is, it doesn’t guarantee your employee will receive a pay out. And if they can, it can take some time. I’ve seen it take 6 months.

Finances can be a major concern for people who are experiencing a serious health issue. And this is on top of dealing with the illness, recovery, and learning to live in a changed body.

WHAT TO DO: If your organisation offers its employees access to a confidential financial advice service, consider mentioning that it’s offered by the company to all employees. The Citizens Advice Bureau can also provide advice or the charity of the illness/condition your employee has (if a charity exists for their issue).

Don’t dismiss your employee’s optimism regarding their return to work if you think they aren’t ready

Many times, your employee is keen to return to work, despite the questions and fears they may have. Work gives us a routine in our lives, and as routine implies predictability, this gives us a sense of safety and normality. After a serious illness/injury, returning to a sense of normality is what people very much want.

Returning to work can also be a sign to the individual that they are indeed getting better.

Work also provides us with an opportunity to contribute, help others, and achieve, all which contribute to our wellbeing. Those opportunities are also great ingredients to grow our confidence and self-worth, which often take a beating during a period of serious ill health when people cannot do very much physically and/or mentally and have to depend on others.

Your employee’s keen-ness could be linked to their desire to get better, return to normality and restore confidence


  • Use opened ended questions to explore what your employee is looking forward to when they return to work, their concerns and the support they need and want from you – What are you looking forward to? What are your concerns? What support would you like from me? Find out if they want their colleagues to know what they have been through and how that information will be shared. Not everyone will want their colleagues to know though.
  • Keeping in touch with the employee whilst they are on sick leave can help the employee still feel connected to work, and help you and they gauge when the return to work can start. But some employees may not be up for having regular contact. They may not feel well enough or just want to be by themselves or with family during this time. If you don’t have much contact with your employee, remember that it doesn’t mean they are not keen to return to work.

Don’t assume your employee’s recovery will be just like your family member, relative, or friend who had the same illness/condition

It won’t. See next point.

Don’t assume that once your employee has returned to work all is back to normal regarding their health

I referred to this idea in the first post on this topic where I cautioned against assuming that recovery means ‘cure’.

Regardless whether your employee returns to work too early or not, something can happen resulting in them having to return to sick leave or slow down their phased return.

When you get a life-changing serious illness, you don’t know what you don’t know so you can’t predict how smooth or not your recovery will be. A medical prognosis is the hoped-for outcome and you can do all you can to maximise it, but that doesn’t guarantee it.

There are many sources you can learn from about an illness and dealing with it, but illnesses affect each person differently, so every person’s recovery path will be different. The recovery process is one where you learn as you go.

Therefore, your employee can’t make predictions about their recovery and how they will cope with working, so they may not always be 100% sure when is the ‘right’ time to return to work. When you balance the pros and cons for all parties involved, there may never be a ‘best’ time either.

WHAT TO DO: You and the employee can ask yourselves and discuss when is it a ‘good enough’ time for the employee to return. You can also offer confidential 1-1 support via a third party such as a coach or your Employee Assistance Programme when helping an employee return to work.

Don’t rush to the assumption that your employee can no longer do their job

Your employee may return to work earlier than they feel ready to because they are worried about losing their job. They may fear that people will think they can’t do the job anymore and find a replacement.


  • Keep in mind that a change in physical or mental functioning may not necessarily mean a person can no longer do their job. A temporary or permanent change to how your employee does their job or even the job they do may be required. External confidential 1-1 support as mentioned above can also help the employee figure out what adjustments they may require and even alternative jobs they can do.
  • Plan with the employee and be prepared to change that plan. Meet regularly. The plan may not turn out to be a smooth upward trend of your employee going from zero to hero according to timing guidelines in HR policies.
return to work after illness

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

Ongoing communication and trust is critical in helping an employee return to work

Here are two things you can do to help that.

  1. Check your assumptions. When preparing for meetings and during them, ask yourself, ‘What am I think about this employee and their return to work situation so far? And what I aiming to achieve in this meeting? What does all that assume of the employee, of the process we are working through, and of myself’ This self-observation can help you catch assumptions which may not help you and your employee achieve the common goal of their successful return to work.
  1. Be prepared to listen to understand first before making yourself understood. If you experience inner head chatter when listening to others, bring your attention back to what the person is saying. This saying can be a great reminder to do that: You’ve got two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion.
how to improve listening skills

Seek to understand before making yourself understood. B Babcock 2017.

What’s it like for you?

If you have any best practice or what not to do when helping an employee return to work after a serious health issue, share them here. Just remember confidentiality and ensure examples cannot identify companies or individuals.

If you’re helping an employee return to work after long-term sick leave 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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