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Supporting returning employees

When it comes to supporting employees who are leaving for or returning from an extended period of leave there are three keywords to keep in mind.
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If an employee has been absent for an extended period of time, they can be very anxious and apprehensive about returning to the workplace. It is in the organisation’s best interest to support the employee so that their return is successful and that they do not suffer a relapse or feel anxious and stressed.

When it comes to supporting employees who are leaving for or returning from an extended period of leave there are three key words to keep in mind:

  • Engagement
  • Confidence
  • Performance

Here are 12 things that make a positive difference to a smooth return to work.

1. Create a toolkit

Consider creating a simple toolkit for line managers and one for returning colleagues with best practice tips from colleagues who have taken extended leave or been a manager to someone who has. Include checklists, practical pointers and a timeline for what to do when.

2. Make connections

HR practitioners often have a bird’s eye view that allows them to see where good practices are happening. We’re in a position to connect with them so that those best practices can be shared. We can also make introductions between colleagues who are taking leave at the same time or where one has returned and can share their experiences to help the other.

3. Empathy

If you’ve taken extended leave, you’ll know just how hard it can feel coming back to work, whatever the reason for absence. Returning employees often question their abilities and worry about how they’ll fit back in and whether their cover has does a better job than them. We need to demonstrate empathy, be mindful of these concerns and reassure our colleagues of their value.

4. Transition period

View a returning colleague’s first 90 days as a period of transition. Transition simply means a period of adjustment where a line manager’s expectations are different to ‘business as usual’ (e.g. more leeway or fewer demands. Some organisations have formal transition policies such as a reduction in targets for a set period.

5. Phased return

A phased return allows an employee to gradually transition back into the workplace by building up the hours and days they work over a period of time. This can be useful for the team as well as the individual. Where a colleague has accrued holiday during their leave, some of these days could be taken in their first weeks back which will make payroll admin easier.

6. Ask, don’t assume

Explore an employees’ preferences about things such as how much and what type of contact they would like whilst away because it’s better to ask than assume. Line managers can be proactive and suggest other ideas with the caveat that they are only suggestions and they are keen to hear their colleagues’ thoughts.

7. Reorientation

There are likely to have been a variety of changes whilst an employee has been away including projects, people and processes. The remit of their team may even have altered. It’s important for returning members of staff to be given an overview of what has changed and why, at the organizational, department and team level. A key part of reorientation is re-establishing relationships and being introduced to relevant people they may not know.

8. Role changes

Whatever the reason for absence, many employees return with a fresh perspective on their working life. This, together with developments in the team, mean it’s important to look at how their role has or could change and to have this documented ahead of their return. Discussion about flexible working may be relevant too. Employees who work flexibly are on average, more committed to the organisation than other employees who don’t ‘benefit’ from such arrangements

9. Performance plan

Co-create a plan with the returning team member for their first 90 days. Reminding returning colleagues of their strengths and taking into account any preferences they have signalled about career direction should be part of this conversation. The key point is that line managers should make their expectations explicit. Giving returning employees this certainty and an opportunity to negotiate – if they think it’s under or over stretching – is important.

10. Stay in touch

Make a plan about how you will stay in touch, before they leave. E-mails, texts and a hand-written card are low pressure ways to stay in touch that the colleague can respond to in his/her own time

11. Praise

Praise is an important way to reassure and boost confidence. Research shows that small wins are a massive motivator and the first 90 days should include plenty of opportunity for the returning colleague to feel they are making meaningful progress (see Amabile & Kramer, 2011). Equally, a line manager who passes on praise and recognition whilst their colleague is away, sets that person up to come back feeling good from the get-go.

12. A fresh perspective

Returning colleagues have a fresh perspective and are able to look at people, processes and customer challenges in new ways. Value and solicit their views whilst they’re crisp and front of mind.

For more information on the how you can support your employees in their return to work, take a look at the link to the CIPD guide: managing a return to work after long-term absence below.

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