What not to say to an employee returning to work after a serious health issue

What not to say to an employee returning to work after a serious health issue

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, 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’. You know how lucky you are. 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. Just remember confidentiality and 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.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although I write these blogs in the context of living with the impact of a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think a colleague, friend or family member would benefit from reading it, or you just want to share it with the world, share this post using the icons below.

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened and whether you have to, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

Helping your employee return to work after a serious health issue – What not to do (Part 2)

Helping your employee return to work after a serious health issue – What not to do (Part 2)

This is the second post in a series for line managers who have an employee returning to work after a serious health issue, and are wondering how they can best support them. Rather than focus on HR policies and employment law, I share 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 empathically with your employee and support them, which is a key ingredient for a working relationship built on trust, and can enhance employee engagement and loyalty. You can read the first post here.

 A member of your team has been on long-term sick leave due to a serious health issue and wants to return to work. You want that too but based on discussions with them, HR and/or occupational health, you have concerns, feel it might be too early and are wondering what to do. Should the employee return now or wait a bit?

There are no straight forward easy answers here as every person, line manager employee relationship, organisation, illness and its recovery process are different. My aim is to explain what not to do in this situation, the reasons people often want to return to work (sometimes early), and what you can do.

 

return to work after illness

The desire to return to work. B Babcock 2017.

 

Don’t assume you can sort an employee’s return to work by yourself

 

This is not a situation you may often deal with at work so make sure you get support. You’re learning too. Not speaking to your HR team and any occupational health services you have access to could result in you saying and doing the wrong thing from a legal perspective.

WHAT TO DO: Speak to your HR team, occupational health, and where appropriate other managers who have been through a similar situation. Read information by charities and the NHS about the illness your employee has. I’ve heard many people express appreciation for a line manager’s willingness to learn about their health issue in order to help them have a good return to work.

 

Don’t assume they would rather be off sick but are returning to work only for the money

 

I’ve heard line managers say, ‘Yeah, they’re only returning to work because the money the company pays over and above statutory sick pay is going to finish. They always return then.’

Whether or not the employee feels ready to return to work, money could very well be the reason they do so. The employee may be the sole or primary bread winner, may not have much savings, and needs the money to pay their rent or mortgage or support their family.

Your employee may have critical illness cover, but their illness/condition/injury may not be covered. If it is, it doesn’t guarantee your employee will receive a pay out. And if they can, it can take some time, at least 6 months.

Finances can be a major concern for people who are experiencing a serious health issue. And this is on top of dealing with the illness, recovery, and learning to live in a changed body.

WHAT TO DO: If your organisation offers its employees access to a confidential financial advice service, consider mentioning that it’s offered by the company to all employees. The Citizens Advice Bureau can also provide advice or the charity of the illness/condition your employee has (if such a charity exists).

 

Don’t dismiss your employee’s optimism regarding their return to work if you think they aren’t ready

 

Many times, your employee is keen to return to work, despite the questions and fears they may have. Work gives us a routine in our lives, and as routine implies predictability, this lends us a sense of safety and normality. After a serious illness/injury, returning to a sense of normality is what people want.

Returning to work can also be a sign to the individual that they are indeed getting better.

Work also provides us with an opportunity to contribute, help others, and achieve, all which contribute to our wellbeing. Those opportunities are also great ingredients to grow our confidence and self-worth, which often take a beating during a period of serious ill health when people cannot do very much physically and/or mentally and have to depend on others.

So that keenness could be your employee’s desire to feel like they are getting better, to return to a normality, and restore their confidence.

WHAT TO DO:

  • Use opened ended questions to explore what your employee is looking forward to when they return to work, their concerns and the support they need and want from you – What are you looking forward to? What are your concerns? What support would you like from me? Find out if they want their colleagues to know what they have been through and how that information will be shared. Not everyone will want their colleagues to know though.
  • Keeping in touch with the employee whilst they are on sick leave can help the employee still feel connected to work, and help you and they gauge when the return to work can start. But some employees may not be up for having regular contact. They may not feel well enough or just want to be by themselves or with family during this time. If you don’t have much contact with your employee, remember that it doesn’t mean they are not keen to return to work.

 

Don’t assume your employee’s recovery will be just like your family member, relative, or friend who had the same illness/condition

 

It won’t. See next point.

 

Don’t assume that once your employee has returned to work all is back to normal regarding their health

 

I referred to this idea in the first post on this topic where I cautioned against assuming that recovery means ‘cure’.

Regardless whether your employee returns to work too early or not, something can happen resulting in them having to return to sick leave or slow down their phased return.

When you get a life-changing serious illness, you don’t know what you don’t know so you can’t predict how smooth or not your recovery will be. A medical prognosis is the hoped-for outcome and you can do all you can to maximise it, but neither are guarantees.

There are many sources you can learn from about an illness and dealing with it, but illnesses affect each person differently, so every person’s recovery path will be different. The recovery process is one where you learn as you go.

Therefore, your employee can’t make predictions about their recovery and how they will cope with working, so they may not always be 100% sure when is the ‘right’ time to return to work. Balancing the pros and cons for all parties involved, there may never be the ‘best’ time either.

WHAT TO DO: Ask yourselves when is it a ‘good enough’ time for the employee to return. Offer confidential 1-1 support via a third party such as a coach or your Employee Assistance Programme to help your employee create coping strategies for now and into the future.

 

Don’t rush to the assumption that your employee can no longer do their job

 

Your employee may return to work earlier than they feel ready to because they are worried about losing their job. They may fear that people will think they can’t do the job anymore and find a replacement.

WHAT TO DO:

  • Keep in mind that a change in physical or mental functioning may not necessarily mean a person can no longer do their job. A temporary or permanent change to how your employee does their job or even the job they do may be required. External confidential 1-1 support as mentioned above can also help the employee figure out what adjustments they may require and even alternative jobs they can do.
  • Plan with the employee and be prepared to change that plan. Meet regularly. The plan may not turn out to be a smooth upward trend of your employee going from zero to hero according to timing guidelines given in HR policies.

 

return to work after illness

From zero to hero. The hope when returning to work after long-term sick leave. B Babcock 2017

 

Ongoing communication and trust between all parties is critical to the employee’s successful return to work

 

Here are two things you can do to help that.

  1. Check your assumptions. When preparing for meetings and during them, ask yourself, ‘What is what I am thinking, aiming to achieve, saying to people assuming of the employee? What does it assume of this process we are working through? What am I assuming of myself?’ This self-observation can help you catch assumptions which may not help you and your employee achieve your common goal of their successful return to work.
  1. Be prepared to listen to understand first before making yourself understood. If you experience inner head chatter when listening to others, bring your attention back to what the person is saying. This saying can be a great reminder to do that: You’ve got two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion.

 

how to improve listening skills

Seek to understand before making yourself understood. B Babcock 2017.

 

What’s it like for you?

 

If you have any best practice or what not to do when helping an employee transition back into work after a serious health issue, share them here. Just remember confidentiality and ensure examples cannot identify companies or individuals.

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.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although these blogs are written in the context of living with the impact of a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think a friend or family member would benefit from reading it, or you just want to share it with the world, share this post using the icons below.

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened and whether you have to, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

Helping your employee return to work after a serious health issue – What not to do (Part 1)

Helping your employee return to work after a serious health issue – What not to do (Part 1)





This is the first 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 empathically 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. I have accumulated the information and advice I will share in this series over 8 years from my personal experience returning to work after a serious illness, supporting a loved in the same position, coaching clients, and supporting many other people through a charity I led. And if you are the employee returning to work, you’ll find something of value here too.

It’s not easy when a team member suddenly becomes seriously ill or has a serious injury and they are on long-term sick leave. You have to reorganise priorities, who is doing what, and may still be expected to get all the work done regardless of having one less person in the team. That can add to any pressure you may already be feeling. There is also the genuine concern you feel for your colleague.

When you hear that your employee is ready to return to work, there is that sense of relief. They will be able to take back the elements of their job you and others may have been doing so you want to help them get up to speed as quickly as possible. And the team will be complete again.

Given your employee may still be recovering from their health issue as they return to work, I share some of the finer points of what to do (and what not to do) to help you support your employee.

supporting employees returning to work after serious health issue line manager concerns

A line manager’s concerns. B Babcock 2017

(more…)

When returning to work after a long-term illness goes wrong

When returning to work after a long-term illness goes wrong

I would like to let you know of a free webinar I am delivering on 26 November, 6-7pm, about supporting employees returning to work after a long-term illness/serious injury. I hope you can join me and I look forward to ‘seeing’ you there.

In the past year or two, maybe you’ve had cancer, a heart attack, or experienced a spinal cord injury or the onset of diabetes, or a fluctuating condition like Multiple Sclerosis, Transverse Myelitis, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. You experienced a health crisis that has irrevocably changed your body and your life.

Now you are returning to work asking yourself the questions: Can I even do what I used to do? Do I want to? Will my health issue prevent me from getting good projects and promoted? How do I talk about what happened and do I want to? I look ok, but will they believe that I don’t always feel well?

Or maybe you are the HR or line manager and play a key role in managing the transition for these employees returning to work. You want to ensure they transition successfully but are wondering what is good and appropriate for the person, how you determine that and talk about it with them.

alt="Control Dice Life"

Photo taken by B Babcock 2015.

 

With some returning employees, there may be obvious issues and concerns with their re-integration. For others, the issues may remain unseen and unspoken. As an organisation you’ve done everything you need to be doing and are wondering if anything else is out there to help these employees’ transitions.

There can be many things which disrupt a return to work after a long-term illness and some of the most common in my experience have been:

  • The nature of the relationship between employee and employer prior to the employee’s health crisis
  • The psychological impact of the health crisis on the individual
  • Unconscious biases and societal stigmas regarding health, illness and disability and how these manifest themselves in the relationship between the returning employee, employer, and colleagues, and the official and unwritten ways of working in the organisation

A successful return to work is important given how much time we spend on it, the financial security it gives us, and the positive impact it can have on our wellbeing.

how-work-can-positively-impact-wellbeing

How work can positively impact wellbeing. B Babcock 2015

 

Based on research conducted for a MA in coaching psychology, I’ll be delivering a free webinar on 26 November, 6-7pm UK time, which will give you an insight into the psychological issues that are often at play for the returning employee and the unconscious biases and societal stigmas around health, illness, and recovery. Using real-life anonymised case studies (permission obtained), the webinar will also demonstrate how coaching has helped this population address those issues and the skills returning employees may need to develop. (If you are an HR professional, I am assuming you have good knowledge of HR best practice and employment law, so this webinar will not be focusing on that.)

If you are an HR professional or line manager, this increased understanding of the returning employee’s experience and awareness of societal stigmas will enable you to relate with a deeper level of empathy, a key cornerstone for trust and relationships.

If you yourself have recently experienced a health crisis and are returning to work, you may find the real-life examples referred to resonate with your own experience. You may also get ideas which you can use to ensure a successful transition back into work.

Register for the free webinar “Supporting employees returning to work after a long-term illness/serious injury”.

It will take place on 26 November, 6-7pm.

About me

I worked in HR, specifically Learning & Development, in professional services both in the UK and abroad. As an accredited coach with the International Coach Federation, I help individuals who have experienced a medical crisis and their families live well with the impact. In addition, I lead the Transverse Myelitis Society, a UK charity which supports people with rare neurological auto-immune conditions and have implemented a coaching scheme for members. My inspiration for this work comes from personal experience and the belief that it is possible to live a full and meaningful life within the realities of a long-term condition, serious illness or injury. And work can play a positive role in that.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2015

Long-term illness & Employment – What makes it work?

You may be the line manager of an employee who is living with a long-term condition or illness that requires some time off for the employee to recover to the point they can return to work. It is not easy having people on leave for such long periods of time and you are wondering how will you ensure their work is covered in their absence. You may be wondering what is the right thing to say and how best to handle the situation. Maybe you have spoken to other line managers but are not comfortable with their suggestions or think that something is missing.

What is missing?

What is often missing is a demonstration of authentic empathy with the person affected and their situation. This can pay dividends and lead to the person returning to work with a renewed commitment to their role and employer. The following article demonstrates that. The gentleman featuring in the article experienced depression, had to take two months off, and was able to return to his role full-time.

The hidden crisis of depression at work (published on 9 December 2014 by People Management, the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s magazine for Human Resources and Learning & Development professionals)

(Depression at work is just one example of the financial and non-financial costs of long-term illness to the individual, his/her employer, and the economy.)

Some of the key things the employer did to enable this gentleman to return to work were underpinned by empathy: how the line manager communicated with this employee, the HR procedures, i.e. a phased return to work that was manageable for the gentleman, and the gentleman and HR department using his experience of depression for the benefit of others.

The power of empathy

Empathy is key. It is needed to build relationships and sustain them. Empathy is being able to stand (or sit) before a person, to look at them, to recognise their emotions for what they are without judgement, to provide the space to listen to understand (rather than listen to respond), to imagine yourself in the person’s situation, to bear witness whilst containing your own anxieties. When you do this, you are saying, ‘I see you. I hear you. I recognise you. Your situation is valid. You matter.’

Empathy is an affirmation and validation of the other person. It is not rocket science. And it is very powerful, paying dividends in the workplace as per the words of the gentleman in the article: ‘And I think it’s one of the reasons I am still working at…this sort of thing creates a strong bond.’

OVER TO YOU

Have you ever had this kind of experience with your employer? Or did you have another kind of experience which wasn’t so pleasant? Or are you a line manager who has dealt with employees on long-term sick leave? What did you do that enabled the employee to return to work? What did you learn from the experience? Share by leaving a comment.

And demonstrate authentic empathy to one person today.

SHARING

If you like what you read, come back for more in the next few weeks. And feel free to follow me here and share this post using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, email or one of the other buttons below.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2014

 

 

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
by Martin Luther King, Jr.

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