This is the third post in a series for line managers who have a team member returning to work after a serious health issue, and are wondering how they can best support their employee. 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 empathetically 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. The previous posts are here and here

Saying the wrong thing is probably what line managers fear most when dealing with a colleague returning to work after a serious health issue. You don’t want to ‘put your foot in it’, upset someone who has already been through a difficult time, and embarrass yourself in the process. But you wonder, ‘What should I say?’

In this post, I’ll give you some pointers and guidelines to help you have a meaningful conversation with someone who has been through a difficult time and cut the chances of ‘putting your foot in it’.

conversation with ill employee

Putting your foot in it. Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

Stop focusing on yourself

When we are worrying about ‘putting our foot in it’, our attention is on ourselves.

And the nature of this attention is anxiety.

We can end up having conversations from that place. Which isn’t exactly helpful for getting a good outcome for you, your employee, the team and organisation.

Only you can change that. This is how you can get out from in front of yourself.

Trust yourself to do a ‘good enough’ job.

Prepare for conversations. What outcome would you like for the person returning to work? For you? For the team? For the organisation? What do you know already? What don’t you know? What questions do you have? Learn about your employee’s health issue. Consult your HR colleagues (please) and an Occupational Health advisor if you have access to one.

If you feel yourself worrying about what to say, switch your focus from yourself to the person in front of you and on exploring the issue at hand with them. Without wanting to sound clichéd, you are both collaborators exploring unchartered territory. It’s about finding a way forward together. So you each have something to contribute. Focus on empowering your employee to make their contribution.

Please don’t start sentences with ‘At least…’


At least you are here now. That is the most important thing.

At least your case was mild and you can walk.

At least your other half didn’t die.

conversation with ill employee

Stating the obvious. Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

Or a variation of ‘at least’, such as ‘It could have been so much worse…’

Or tell a story of someone who had been in a similar position and how the person in front of you is in a better place.

You may be saying that from a very good place. You are happy that the person’s illness was mild in the scheme of things, that they didn’t die, and you are trying to express that. You may be trying to help them put their experience into the context of a bigger picture.

‘At least’ and its variants invite a comparison

And it’s the type of comparison which can often minimise and discount the person’s experience and their ability to evaluate their own experience. In effect, one is saying, ‘Your experience wasn’t that bad,’ and ‘Don’t you realise how lucky you are?’

The person may have found their experience very difficult and uncertain. For all we know, it might have been the most difficult thing they have faced in their life so far. We can get an idea for what someone else is feeling if we’ve had a similar experience and/or a well-developed ability to empathise. But if the experience isn’t our own, we don’t own it, and so it is hard to truly ‘know’ another person’s experience.

When you are on the receiving end of ‘At least…’, you can feel judged and ‘less than’

The person knows how lucky they are to be back at work. It can feel insensitive to be told something that is obvious. It can shut the conversation down. The person on the receiving end of ‘at least’ may think, ‘My line manager doesn’t get it.’ Going forward, they may operate from that basis, correctly or not.

You can see how these small things we say and how we say them can lead to disconnection. A build up of them can lead to distrust and possibly a breakdown in the relationship.

And watch your use of ‘…but…’

That’s a good idea, but I’m not sure people will be open to working like that.

The word ‘but’ also discounts and minimises what comes before it.

Use ‘and’ instead. And connects things together and gives both equal weight.

That’s a good idea and I’m not sure people will be open to working like that. How can we approach them with this idea?

Here’s another hint. When you use the word ‘and’ in this way, say it like you would any other time. I’ve heard people use ‘and’ in place of ‘but’ and give it so much stress, that ‘and’ felt like it had the same meaning as ‘but’. (Say that last sentence substituting the underlined and with but and you’ll see what I mean.)

Avoid ‘Don’t you think…?’ questions

Questions starting with, ‘Don’t you think…’ are leading questions. Say what you really mean instead.

For example, if by saying, ‘Don’t you think XYZ is possible?’ you are thinking/wondering that XYZ is a viable option, then say that. ‘I was wondering if XYZ could be an option because of ABC. What are your thoughts?’

Depending on the person you are speaking to, if they are a subordinate or someone who doesn’t willingly give their own views, you may need to give them permission to disagree with you. And if they disagree, avoid rushing in with a response that starts with ‘But…’ as that will kill what could be fruitful disagreement, the kind that leads to an even better solution.

Use open questions

Those questions starting with ‘what’ and ‘how’, they are your friend. Use them.

Questions starting with ‘why’ are ok and sometimes can invite a defensive response depending on the topic of conversation and the relationship between you and your employee. If in doubt, use ‘how come’ instead.

Questions starting with ‘where’ and ‘when’ are good for fact checking and establishing the way forward, ‘When will you be able to finish that report by?’ ‘Where can we have that meeting?’

Focus on yourself

I started this post by saying don’t focus on yourself. Now I’m telling you to focus on yourself. Might be confusing but I’ll explain.

When you are conversing with someone, it’s important to track how you are feeling in relationship to the person you are speaking with. It’s noticing when you feel in rapport with the other person, if you are feeling anxiety or confused, have questions, you are both in agreement or something else. It’s being aware of when you are helping yourself and the other person, and when you are getting in your own way.

Increased awareness of how you are in relationship with others gives you more choices, which in turn can increase your flexibility to adapt your approach. Being able to do that in the moment gives you more influence and enables you to stay in control of yourself and your role in the conversation. This is a skill that takes time to develop because you are learning to balance your attention on yourself and the other person.

You are the expert on you and it’s important to keep developing that expertise.

behaviour flexibility

Listening to yourself to adapt your approach. Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

What’s it like for you?

If you have any examples of what to say or not when helping an employee transition back into work after a serious health issue, share them here. To ensure confidentiality make sure examples do not name companies or people.

If you have an employee returning 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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