Returning to work after a serious illness can feel like a relief. It’s a long-awaited return to normality. You may also have financial concerns of needing to make money again, wondering if you are ready to return, and just generally have anxieties and questions regarding the whole process.
Will you be able to cope? What will your colleagues say? And what do you want to say to them? Will you be treated the same or different? How helpful will your employer be? You may feel a mix of contradictory emotions.
This is normal – feeling excited but having lots of questions and worries. To help answer some of these questions, I am bringing you a four-part blog series on what to consider when returning to work after a serious illness or injury to make it a successful transition. And today’s topic is…
Returning to work after serious illness – What you need to know
Returning to work after a serious illness involves a partnership between you and your employer. The quality of the relationship between you and your line manager and the organisation prior to you going on sick leave can impact this. However, as that can be a blog in and of itself, I am assuming that your relationship with your line manager and the organisation was in a good enough state prior to you going on sick leave.
There are things your employer can do for you during the transition. But to make sure what they do actually helps you, there are things you can do to help them. It’s a two-way street.
So here are 5 things to know about or do so you can help your employer help you.When returning to work after a #seriousillness or #seriousinjury there are 5 things you can do to help your employer help you. It’s a two-way street. If you can do this, your return to work will be that much more successful. Read… tell a friend
1. Know your company’s sickness absence policy
You can find this in the employee handbook, which is more often than not on your company’s intranet. The sickness absence policy details the procedures around how your salary is dealt with, keeping in touch with you, if your employer wishes to learn more about how you are affected, what happens to your holiday and the process of returning to work. (What I am writing here refers to the United Kingdom. What is covered in a sickness absence policy in your country may differ.)
Knowing the policy helps you understand what guidelines your line manager and HR department are working to and why.
Your employer may wish to keep in touch with you so they can see how you are doing, which can give them an indication to some degree on whether you are ready or not to return to work, but many times also out of genuine concern. They also may wish to keep you up to date with any changes at work.
However, your employer needs to know if you are capable of keeping in touch with them. For example, you may be so drained from treatment/surgery/chemotherapy/chronic pain, you may not have the energy for a phone call or visit. But also, it gives you an opportunity to let them know how you are doing and how ready or not you are to return to work.
The policy also lets you know what the boundaries are
For example, when returning to work after a serious illness you often return gradually over a period of time. The policy may state a period of time of 8 weeks for example.
However, illnesses, the recovery process from them, and any residual ongoing symptoms do not work to defined time periods like 8 weeks. Knowing about the time period though can help you gauge what you are ready to do. You may need a shorter or longer time for a gradual return to work, and if so, discuss this with your doctor in the first instance. You may can then discuss this with your employer. And during the return to work process, if you have an occupational health resource, they may be able to help too.Are you on long-term sickness leave from work? Make sure to read your employer’s sickness absence policy. It helps you understand the guidelines your employer is working to, the why they do what they do. Being informed can prevent… tell a friend
2. Know about reasonable adjustments
Reasonable adjustments are changes your employer can make to ensure there aren’t barriers to you returning to work and fulfilling your role. I often find that people do not know what reasonable adjustments are. They are often mentioned in tandem with having a disability so be sure to read about the Equality Act which I cover next.
Knowing about them helps you determine what adjustments you need, which you can then share with your employer, i.e. help them to help you. I have come across instances where the employer asks the individual what changes they need, the employee hasn’t even thought about it nor knew this would be a good thing to think about. If the employer doesn’t educate the employee on what reasonable adjustments are, it leaves the employee in the position to take the lead in a way on sorting their needs out. But that is hard to do when you don’t know what you don’t know.
There are three types of reasonable adjustments
- The way things are done. These are processes, procedures, a practice, rule or decision.
- A physical feature. This may involve changing, removing or adapting a physical feature of the workplace so it is not a barrier for you. For example, if you now use a wheelchair, your employer will need to review if you can safely get into and out of the building during normal times and an emergency. Doorways may need to be wider and/or automatic doors installed.
- Provision of aids and services so you can do your job. This may be a desk that can be a standing or seated desk if you cannot sit for long periods of time. Or you may require an induction loop if you have a hearing aid. Or you may use dictation software if you can no longer type. Or you may require information in alternative formats (Braille or audio) so you can take it in.
Your employer will make adjustments which are reasonable for it to do
Several things are taken into account to determine what is ‘reasonable’:
- How your illness or injury affects you
- What is practical for the company to do
- Resources available to make the change
- Cost of the change
- Size of the company
- Have the changes been made already
- Would the adjustment alleviate the barrier you face (and others like you)
It is not your job to pay for the reasonable adjustments yourself. ACAS gives a good description with examples of reasonable adjustments here.
ACAS is the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service which provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law. I find it to be a very useful resource.
Have a good think about what reasonable adjustments you may need in the shorter term during your gradual return to work and possibly over the longer-term.
Here is one real life example of a client who had a heart attack at a younger than expected age and works in a large corporate in The City (of London) in a demanding and senior role. (I have their permission to use this example.)
This client returned to full-time work gradually over a period of 10 months. There were regular meetings between the employee returning to work, their line manager, HR and occupational health to gauge the employee’s needs and what was a feasible next step.
As part of returning to work full-time, the client requested to work from home two days per week given a side-effect of the medication they are now on for life is tiredness and they find the commute very tiring. Working from home on two non-consecutive days helps them to maintain their energy levels to work full-time. This is an example of a long-term change which falls into the change in practice category.It is important to consider what reasonable adjustments you may need your employer to make when returning to work after a #seriousillness #seriousinjury or onset of a #chronicillness #returntowork Read more about them here tell a friend
3. Know about the Equality Act
The Equality Act 2010 (the Act) covers disability discrimination and as disability can result from serious illness, chronic illness or a serious injury, it is good to be aware of it in case you have a disability. You can read about the Act on the ACAS website here.
If how you have been impacted by your illness or injury means you have a disability, then you are protected under the Act from being discriminated against at work for having it. As I am not a lawyer, I am not going to give you advice. Instead, I will signpost to where you can read more information.
An important aspect of the Act is the definition of disability, which is a protected characteristic:
- “a physical or mental impairment, that
- has a substantial (that is, more than minor or trivial) and
- long-term adverse effect, on
- the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” (CIPD, 2018)
The Act does not specify what normal day-to-day activities might be. But ACAS gives some guidance here. You can read the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance on matters in relation to the definition of disability here.
Some conditions are automatically covered under the Act from point of diagnosis including cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS. You can read the guidance ACAS gives about that here.
4. Know about Access to Work
Access to Work is a UK government scheme that provides help not offered by your employer to help you stay in work.
According to the Access to Work website, an Access to Work grant can pay for:
- special equipment, adaptations or support worker services to help you do things like answer the phone or go to meetings
- help getting to and from work
The website outlines the eligibility requirements, what you get, how the scheme works and how to apply. What your employer may be able to do may meet your needs so you may find you don’t need to apply to this scheme. Or you may find that you do not meet the eligibility criteria.
5. Keep notes of conversations you have with your employer
Keep a record of conversations you have with your employer about returning to work – date of conversation, time, who was present, and a factual recording of who said what, decisions made and reasons for them, and follow-up action people have agreed to take. Having a written record can clarify what was decided and questions people have further down the line if that is ever needed.
It is also useful just in case the relationship with your employer breaks down for whatever reason or something not-very-nice happens. In the majority of cases, nothing bad will happen. And in that case, the record can show how far you have come in your return to work journey.
Come back in two weeks where I will talk about what you can do to prepare your body and mind to return to work after a serious illness.
What’s it like for you?
If you are soon returning to work after a serious illness or injury, have you come across these recommendations before? What other questions do you have about returning to work? And if you have returned to work already, what would you add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
If you are living with a challenging health issue or caring for someone who is, and would like support on any of the issues discussed here, 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 2018