Prepare for returning to work after illness or injury. Is that a thing? You’ve been through a serious illness, perhaps life-changing for you in some ways, treatment has ended, your recovery is going pretty well and returning to work is now on the horizon. Hurrah!

You just want to get back to work. Back to normality! Your regular salary and not sick pay. Being with other people again. Making a contribution. There may be concerns and worries of course. But getting back to normality like work is a key milestone.

Then you get back to work, you go for it, and you crash. Hard. Your body isn’t coping. You have to go back on sick leave. You’re thinking, ‘What the… *insert fruity language*?!?! You feel so disappointed.

Pic of someone returning to work after illness and it doesn't go well

When the return to work doesn’t go to plan.

I totally understand how that can happen. It’s pretty common actually. If you’ve haven’t been seriously ill before, how would you know how to prepare for returning to work after illness or injury? You don’t necessarily know that stuff. It’s not like your doctor gives you an info sheet on it.

I’m going to share a few tips to help you avoid that. I split them into four categories – Mind, Heart, Body and your Role at work. This is about taking a holistic approach to prepare for returning to work after illness or injury.

Click here on how to prepare your mind, heart and body to return to work after a serious illness or injury. #returntowork #seriousillness #chronicillness tell a friend

How to prepare for returning to work – Your mind

Manage your expectations of yourself.

We often expect our return to work after illness to go like this.

Person returning to work after illness expecting a smooth return to work

People’s expectations for returning to work can often look like this

It’s more often like this.

Pic of a graph demonstrating that the return to work after illness is not smooth

A return to work after illness often looks like this.

Be gentle with yourself

It’s very easy for your pre-illness expectations of yourself to come to the fore when you start returning to every day normal activities. It’s normal for this to happen because your pre-illness expectations of yourself are all you know. But I often see clients battle to live up to those expectations. And I use that word ‘battle’ on purpose. It’s like a fight, ‘I will not let this illness and these symptoms beat me. I will WIN! I WILL last the whole day at work!’

This kind of fight is a negative fight as you have actually handed over control to your pre-illness expectations. You have become their slave. It can be a very unhappy and frustrating place to be in when you find that no matter what you do, you can’t live up to those expectations.

The thing is, your pre-illness expectations may no longer match your body’s capabilities. Your body has changed. Therefore, your expectations of what your body can do also need to change. They need to align with your new capabilities.

Being able to adapt is key for this to happen. But with adaptation comes acknowledgement of what has happened to you. For some, this process of acknowledging the change can be hard.

This brings us to your Heart.

How to prepare for returning to work – Your heart

Losing valued levels of physical and/or mental functioning can be hard. Your body and/or mind no longer do what it used to do. What you need it to do. What you want it to do. It can feel like your body has betrayed you. And that you are at war with it. You may be feeling very angry.

You feel like you are no longer you. But you also know you are you. You can feel so contradictory. Your heart hurts.

It’s important to acknowledge how you are feeling. To give your feelings some expression, to spend some time with them. As I’ve said previously, you don’t have to unpack and live in those feelings forever and ever. You just visit. And the length of that visit is up to you. If how you feel can feel overwhelming, get support from someone who can help you spend a little time with the feelings to understand what they want to tell you.

Picture of person coping with unpleasant feelings

You don’t have to unpack and live with overwhelming feelings.

Also, speak gently and compassionately to yourself. You’ve been through a lot. It’s ok to move more slowly, to do less, to not do things as perfectly, to not achieve as much. Focus your energies on the things that matter to you.

Your heart will thank you for this. And you will feel better.

How to prepare for returning to work – Your body

Finally, it’s important to gently prepare your body to return to work. Returning to work after an extended period of probably not being very physically active can be very draining physically and mentally.

Think through your typical work activities and ways you can simulate them at home.

The purpose of doing this is to really feel how you your body copes with them and learn where your limits are.

If you are returning to work gradually, for example, 3 days a week for 2 hours each day at the start, set up that routine at home.

Make sure you get up at the same time you will need to when you return to work. Wash, get dressed, eat. Go through that routine to see how your body copes. Set yourself activities to do in the time frame you will be at work – say 2 hours of paying bills, work on the computer, some errands (if you can do them), a bit of light cleaning, tidying, calling people.

You can simulate a meeting. For example, meet a friend for coffee and notice what it’s like for you to get to the coffee house, visit with your friend, deal with the noise around you and being in public, and return home.

Do these activities at different times of the day to see how your body responds.

As you do this, notice how your body feels. Do you feel really tired? Do your symptoms get worse? Or do you find the activities distract you from the symptoms? Do you find it doable? Or too much? Do you find you cope better in the morning or afternoon?

This will give you an idea of what your body is capable of and the tasks you can and may not be able to do back at work. Of course, what you can and cannot do may change the longer you simulate work activities at home and then when you are back at work.

Before returning to work, get your body ready by simulating your work routine at home. You will learn how your body copes, its limits, and what adjustments you may need back at work. Read more about it here. #returntowork… tell a friend

What does this all mean for your role at work?

After having simulated your work routine at home, think of your work environment.

First, think about the physical environment: how furniture is arranged, is it open plan, do you not have a desk, the lights, getting to the different areas within the office you will need to go, etc.

Is there anything there which may be an obstacle? Do you need to make a request for a reasonable adjustment? I wrote about what reasonable adjustments are last week and you can read more about that topic here.

Also think of the non-physical aspects of the environment.

Does your work have a recommended time frame by which they expect you to return to work full-time? How flexible can that time frame be? (The after effects of illness and injury don’t often work to others’ time frames including your expected time frame.)

What is the culture like?

Are your teammates helpful? Is your line manager understanding, and their line manager? And HR? Do you have people at work who can help you look after your interests, whether formally or informally? What support will you need? How will you manage the pressure?

I appreciate these are a lot of questions so take your time in thinking them through. I have just a few more questions about your role at work

What tasks can you currently do, cannot do at the moment, or you may no longer be able to do ever?

This is important to consider because if you have an idea on this, you can communicate this to your employer at the appropriate time to help them help you return to work. Also, if you cannot do the significant tasks in your role, then you may need to consider doing a different role.

Let me give you an example. I once knew someone who worked in a department store arranging their displays. They were affected by an illness which affected their balance and mobility. So they were no longer able to climb up a ladder. This significantly impacted their ability to do their role. They had to change roles in the organisation which did not require them to climb up ladders and carry heavy items.

If you think you are no longer able to do your current role, or only a part of it, are there other roles you could and would like to do in your organisation?

You may not have to ask yourself this question, but I ask it just in case you do. I’ve had people say to me if they had only thought that there could be alternatives, they would have thought them through. So think through possible alternatives if that is what you feel you will need.

Prepare for returning to work

Questions to ask yourself as part of your preparation for returning to work after a serious illness or injury.

Those are my key tips how to prepare for returning to work after illness. All the very best with your return. And come back next week when I will be sharing what to say to whom and managing your own and others’ expectations at work.

What’s it like for you?

What key tips do you have to share with someone preparing to return to work after illness or injury? Has anything in particular worked for you? Or do you have questions about your situation? 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

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