Trying to fit in at work when returning after illness or injury can feel like another job in itself in addition to doing your job. You may have all sorts of questions and concerns.

Yet returning to work can restore a sense of normality to your life and routine. It can feel like a relief, an ‘I made it!’ type of feeling. And you of course want it to go well. In addition to needing the salary to live, having a job where we feel we can make a useful contribution, work with nice-enough people and learn something can do so much for our wellbeing.

So in this post I want to go through some of the challenges that can get in the way of you trying to fit in at work when returning after illness and what you can do about it.

The 10 challenges of trying to fit in at work when returning after illness or injury

This is not an exhaustive list. And not all of these may apply to you.

Two women are speaking about a leadership programme they have been on at work. One woman is giving the other woman a book and is saying, 'Here's the book they recommended on the leadership programme.' Another woman is sitting nearby working on her laptop at her desk. She isn't smiling and thinking, 'I missed that programme because of my illness.' When we are trying to fit in at work when returning after illness or injury, realising what we missed and had wanted to do can make that hard. Make sure to read the blog post to find out what you can do about it.

1. Things happened at work whilst you were away that you were not a part of.

Regarding the work you and your team did, the organisation as a whole, and the people you worked with.

You may or may not miss having missed out on these activities and comings and goings. It may be necessary or just useful for your job to have chats with people to fill in the detail of what you missed. Sometimes it’s not necessary but useful from a social perspective.

2. Depending on how much in touch you were with work and the people there whilst you were on leave, many or some people won’t know the detail of all that you’ve been through.

When deciding how much to tell a person, consider your relationship to them in the workplace. For example, you may tell HR and your boss more than you do others because they are in a position to help make adjustments so that you can continue to do your role or transition to a new role (provided one is available).

If you are inclined to not tell people anything, I get that. There is something about what you experienced being personal but also possibly painful. And talking about it dredges up all the pain associated with it.

Also consider that when you say nothing, people are left to make up their own stories and they may not be true. So control your story. You can share just enough high-level general info and no more.

3. You may or may not be able to or even want to take part in work social activities as before.

For example, you could be on medication which means you cannot drink much or any alcohol. Or you are so knackered by the end of the day, you don’t have the energy to do team drinks.

This kind of links to the above challenge. Do you want to tell people why you don’t take part in social activities? Again, it’s up to you.

4. You may not be able to work at the pace you once did due to ongoing symptoms (fatigue, pain, etc.).

Take it gently as you transition back to work. Your body is still in recovery mode and the recovery process does not follow your employer’s phased return timescales nor yours.

To help yourself, you need to get to know your body now, what it can and cannot do and hold yourself to expectations that align to your body’s current capabilities. These are often very different from the expectations you held yourself to pre-illness/injury self.

5. Or you may not be able to do some part of your job anymore.

Or even at all and you’ll have to transition to a new one if one is available.

Note that this point is a more complex one and could have a blog or more devoted to it

Hopefully, your employer is flexible enough to make what is known in the UK as ‘reasonable adjustments’ so you can return to your job. If that is not possible and your company is large enough, you may be able to transition to a new role you can do. If not, it may mean having to leave the company.

6. You may have new routines related to your health issue which you have to carry out at work.

For example, dealing with your colostomy bag or injecting insulin before lunch. You may wish to use the disabled loo as it has enough space, shelves and such for what you need.

Before returning to work, walk through in your mind the variety of ways you can deal with these new routines: what you need to do, at what time, and where is the best place.

Also write down the questions and concerns you have. It may be that some concerns are things you can’t control whether or not they happen. So you can then acknowledge that and move on to what you can control. Other questions you may be able to get support to address them.  

7. Work may be a different sort of priority for you these days.

Your experience has changed you and you may be looking at life very differently. After dealing with a challenging health issue, you find that you go through this process of re-ordering your priorities in life. That is normal.

Your priorities may differ from others. That is ok. We are each on our own journey through life.

One of the challenges to fitting in at work when you return after long-term #illness or #injury can be that your priorities regarding work may have changed. They may differ from your colleagues. Read more here #returntowork Share on X

8. How the process goes of fitting in can depend to a degree on the relationship you had with your colleagues, boss, the Human Resources department and organisation before you went off ill or injured.

If the relationship(s) you had weren’t smooth ones, sometimes returning to work after long-term illness can exacerbate that. For others, it can be a new start.

Also impacting this can be the next challenge.

9. People’s attitudes to challenging illness or injury, disability and recovery can also impact on you feeling like you fit in at work.

Your organisation, the Human Resources department and your boss’s and colleagues views and beliefs regarding challenging health issues and recovery. I’ve written a lot about this already so do read my blogs.

Some people may say thoughtless things and just not get it. It’s hard being on the receiving end of it. And remind yourself that it speaks volumes of the person saying it and their level of knowledge and experience of dealing with challenging health issues

10. External events may mean that you have to change how you work and there is a process to go through to learn about the change and get used to it.

For example, new regulations in the industry you work in or a pandemic.

You may be dealing with a number of these challenges.

It’s no wonder that it feels hard to fit in at work when returning after illness.

Here’s the key reason why

A lot of the challenges listed above are about difference, i.e. how you are different now as a result of your health condition and what that means for you at work. And in your life.

When you are dealing with a difference, you are also making a comparison. In this case, comparing the you now to the person you were prior to your health condition. And the people at work may be doing that too. So there can be a load of comparison happening and it’s not one you would have chosen for yourself. It can be a lot to deal with.

A woman is standing and looking at a sign that says Health Issue --> Change --> Difference --> Comparison to your pre-illness/injured self and to others. This woman is thinking, 'I didn't choose all this for myself.' Two other people from the woman's workplace are standing on the other side of the sign. One of them is saying, 'I wonder if she can still do the job.' The second is saying, 'Let's found out what support she needs.' The point is that when you have a health issue, you are dealing with change. Change means difference and difference means you can end up comparing yourself to your pre-illness/injured self and comparing yourself to others. People at work will be making that comparison too. It's a lot to deal with especially as you didn't choose any of this for yourself. That can make it hard to fit in at work when returning after illness.

So what else can you do to help yourself fit in at work when returning after illness?

Dealing with a challenging health issue is a big transition. Returning to work afterwards is another big transition. Treating yourself gently, finding ways to relate constructively with your employer, and getting support on both those fronts can help.

Dealing with a challenging #health issue is a big transition. Returning to work afterwards is another big transition. Read what you can do here #returntowork Share on X

What’s it like for you?

What challenges do you think you’ll face, or have you faced, when trying to fit in at work when returning after illness? What questions do/did you have about it? If you feel that you found a way to fit in at work, what do you and others do which helped? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (contact form in sidebar).

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, you can


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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2021

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