Managing expectations at work after illness or injury is so important to ensure your return to work is a good enough transition. And linked to this is what you tell people.

You may be wondering what to say to people, if anything, about what happened to you. It’s ok to think think it’s none of their business, or maybe you wish to say something to certain people. Or maybe you are happy to tell people everything.

How much information we share is different for everyone, so it’s your decision regarding how much you share. However, how much you say to whom about the illness or injury you have (or had) has a link to managing expectations at work after illness. The expectations you have of yourself and what others have of you regarding what you can do at work after a serious illness or injury.

How much information you share about your illness or injury and its impact on you links to managing the expectations of yourself and others when returning to work #seriousillness #seriousinjury #returntowork #healthcoaching tell a friend

If expectations are managed appropriately, then everyone is on the same page and it limits misunderstandings. So this blog is meant to help you think through what you want to tell people and how much information you may need to give them so your return to work is a good enough transition. I give you a series of questions to help you do that.

Who do I need to tell?

It’s the key people you work with the most often and/or will be involved in your return to work. They typically include your line manager, their boss, Human Resources (HR), occupational health (if your company has one in-house or work with an external provider), fellow team members, and your own team if you have people reporting to you.

There may also be other people internally and externally in your organisation with whom you work. How much you tell them, if anything, can depend on the type of work you do together, how much you work with them, and your relationship with them. You don’t have to tell people everything. And some people don’t need to know anything.

What do these people expect of me?

Having an idea of what you think people may expect of you is a starting point for discussion. It’s also an opportunity to identify any assumptions you are holding about others which may not be true or helpful to your return to work.

Give these questions some consideration.

  • What do you think your line manager, their boss, HR, occupational health, fellow team members, people who report to you, and others expect of you in this return to work process (other people internally, clients, etc.)?
  • And what do you expect of them? Your expectations may be different for each person. And there may also be themes in what you expect from people generally.
  • Most importantly, what do you expect of yourself?
Three questions to help you identify your own and others expectations of you when returning to work after illness

To manage expectations when returning to work after illness or injury, you need to know what they are.

Some common responses I’ve come across include:

  1. They will get rid of me if they knew I fall a lot/ am incontinent/ need to take more breaks, etc. (insert how you are affected now).
  1. I worry they will expect me to go back to the way I was before my operation. But I am not sure yet I can do everything I did before.
  1. I expect my employer to sort things so I can return to my job like before. There’s not much for me to do.
  1. I have no idea what to expect. My boss has changed and I haven’t even met the new boss yet.
  1. I have no idea what my team members expect of me. I don’t know what I expect from them.
  1. I expect it will take me a few weeks to adjust and then I’ll be fine to work full-time like before.

Be wary of making assumptions of what others are thinking

Such as the ones in points 1 and 2. We cannot mind read and if we do and then act on those assumptions, we can end up creating a difficult situation for ourselves. And that is the last thing you want to do.

Make sure to check with your employer what they expect from you as you return to work after a #seriousillness #seriousinjury This can help you identify any unhelpful assumptions you may be holding #returntowork #healthcoaching tell a friend

I would caution against leaving your employer to do everything as suggested in point 3. If you do this, you kind of take yourself out of the process and become a passive recipient. And you may not like what comes your way. There are things you can do to help your employer help you. This blog and the previous two I wrote (here and here) about returning to work are meant to help you do that.

On points 4 and 5, then give a good think around the questions on what you expect from yourself and others. If you have a new boss you haven’t met yet, then that is an added consideration. You have a whole new relationship to establish. I won’t go into detail on this point, but I want to acknowledge that it can happen.

On point 6, prepared to be flexible on how long it will take you to adjust to working again and the changes which may have happened in the interim at work. Recovery from illnesses and injuries do not work to our own or others’ timescales. Sometimes the process may be slower than anticipated, or like two steps forward, three steps back. That is normal. When something like that happens, of course it’s disappointing. It is also a sign that we may have overdone it and it can give us information on where our limits currently are.

Be honest with yourself from the start and set a realistic timetable for returning to work. This can be revisited and adjusted as time moves on.

What information can help in managing expectations at work after illness?

I often find that the employer wants to know if you can do your job as you did before and how long it will take for you to get to that point. If you won’t be able to do your job as before, they often want to know why that is, and what does it mean for your future in terms of what you can do. And they want to know what you can do now.

This can feel kind of invasive. Your employer may want to know a lot about you. Knowing this helps them to plan on how to get the work done, and you and your job are a part of that plan. And you only need to give them information as it relates to you in your role at work.

I often find the employer needs reassurance from a third party ‘expert’ in your illness or injury, like your doctor, occupational health, and/or info from a charity. Some people who find their employers wanting such information can assume their employer doesn’t trust them and focus on that. And the relationship can go downhill from there.

When you assume that your employer doesn’t trust you and you operate from that assumption, it doesn’t put you in a resourceful state to deal with the situation. Instead, think of what information you can provide to back up what you are saying and to educate them regarding your needs. This can go a long way in managing your employer’s expectations.

How has the illness or injury affected me? How might that impact my ability to do the work I do with each of these people?

The previous blog in this series on returning to work addressed the question on the impact of your illness or injury on your capabilities to do the various parts of your role. That blog contains advice on how to start figuring that out prior to returning to work so I recommend a read.

Think through the role you do and how the illness/injury you have/had might impact your ability to do the work you do with each of these people.

Then ask yourself…

Based on that, in which parts of my job do I need support from others?

For example, some tasks may take longer because of fatigue, mobility issues or chemo brain and having longer lead times for projects would be useful. Or you may require help at times with finishing a task. Or you physically can no longer work the hours you used to so the amount of work you can do has to change.

Or you need to work two days a week from home because the commute is very energy draining so people need to know how to contact you. Or maybe you don’t need people’s support with certain tasks. But you just would like people’s understanding and patience.

Think through those tasks you may need help with, what you feel you can do, what you know you can no longer do, as this will help you identify your needs and where and when you may need help from others. Also think about who can provide support and what kind of support they might be able to provide. This is particularly relevant to those with whom you work closely – your boss, team members, and people who may work for you.

Share what you need from people. I know this may sound odd or even downright scary. In our society, it’s not looked on favourably to have needs and I wrote a series of blogs on that topic here. However, most people like to help others and are happy to. But to receive the right kind of help, you need to know what help would best suit you and to communicate that to people.

Most people are happy to help you during your return to work after a #seriousillness #seriousinjury But to receive the right kind of help, you need to know what help would best suit you and to communicate that to people… tell a friend

And based on that, how much information about the impact of my illness or injury should I give to people?

It can help to give people some information on the condition/injury you have to help them put into context the impact of that illness or injury on you and your current needs. So if you have fatigue and your brain works more slowly and you are in a job that requires a lot of brain power then you may wish to say how the illness/injury you had can cause fatigue and impact the brain.

This is particularly important for conditions where the impact on you is invisible, for example, fatigue or chronic pain. If you share nothing about the impact of your illness or injury, people may not understand why you require adjustments and support.

When people are left with little information, they often start to fill in the blanks themselves. And the story they create in their heads may not be correct, which won’t help you if they start acting on the story they have created. It makes it much more difficult for you to manage their expectations.

Also, I want to share a point on the concept of recovery. People often assume recovery from a serious illness or injury means you go back to the way you were. That is often not the case. Not only can your body be changed forever, but also how you feel in your body and about the whole situation and what it means for you. This is an area where stigma and bias can make an appearance. I’ve written about that and dealing with it here, here and here.

In our society there are biases and stigmas which surround recovery from an illness or injury.

The biases and stigma which surround recovery.

A side benefit of providing just enough information can be to educate and even reduce the stigmas and biases that exist in our society around the capabilities of people who have experienced a serious illness/injury. This too can help with managing expectations at work after illness.

You may not need to give everyone the same amount of info. Give people what they need to know in order to support you and you to support them. People may talk among themselves so you may find others you did not give much information to learn of additional information from others. So, if you don’t want people to share, say that up front. You can’t control whether they share or not at the end of the day. But you can state what you would like and if they have agreed to that but then act contrary to it, you can then go back and ask them why.

When returning to work after a #seriousillness #seriousinjury, you may not need to give everyone the same info about your illness/injury and how it affects you. Give people what they need to know in order to support you and you to… Click To Tweet
Questions to think about to help you in managing expectations at work after illness

Questions to download and have a think about.

Finally, regular meetings are key to managing expectations at work after illness

Regular meetings with the key people you work with are important to keep the lines of communication open, which in turn are important in managing expectations at work after illness. These meetings are good for discussing your progress, any challenges and planning how to meet them, how the support you need may be changing, and to discuss any updates on your medical situation which is relevant to your return to work. Occupational health can be involved in these discussions.

Given that there can be a lot of unknowns regarding your recovery – what your recovery will be like and how long that will take – these meetings also allow you all to acknowledge the unknowns and plan around them.

The people involved in these meetings are usually your line manager and maybe even HR. Meeting with team members and people who work for you tend to focus on the jobs you all do, progress being made, and what support you need from each other.

And if you demonstrate proactivity in these meetings by scheduling them or encouraging they are scheduled, coming prepared, sharing information relevant to your return to work, etc. that makes you look good. You are doing your bit to help your employer help you.

Picture of a woman being proactive in asking her boss for a meeting about her return to work after illness

No one will be proactive for you. It is only yours to do. Getting support can make it easier to do.

What’s it like for you?

How much information about your illness or injury are you comfortable disclosing to people you work with? What advice do you have to share on managing expectations at work after illness. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you will soon be returning to work after a serious illness or injury or are already in the process of doing so and want to work through the questions in this blog and have a sounding board as you do so, 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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