Supporting a Return to Work After Absence

Returning to work after a period of absence can be a difficult adjustment.

In a recent article, we wrote about the importance of having a having a robust handover process in place to ensure that business operations can continue smoothly when a member of the team leaves – but what about when an employee returns to work? It is equally important that this process is well managed, both for the organisation and the employee.

Why is managing the ‘return to work’ process important?

A smooth ‘return to work’ process benefits everyone in an organisation and helps the day-to-day running of the business continue with minimal disruption. Where employees feel supported, they are more likely to re-commence their role with confidence. However, if support is lacking, it can be a struggle for returning employees to adjust, particularly where processes have changed and new, unfamiliar projects are underway. This can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the team and its productivity, and may damage the employee’s confidence – perhaps permanently.

Depending on the length of absence, the returning employee may be experiencing feelings of anxiety around resuming their role. They may feel out of touch with the organisation and their colleagues, and wonder about what has changed during their absence.

There are many ways this can be approached by a manager, but the key is preparation. If you know an employee will be returning, make sure the basics are in place to welcome them back well in advance.

Maintaining contact during the absence period is one way of ensuring that the employee feels connected to the workplace. However, this needs to be managed correctly. Give the employee options as to how often and what form this contact should take. Would they like updates by email, a phone call or face to face, for example?

If appropriate, updates could include organisational news, even where it isn’t directly relevant to employee’s role. This way they are kept aware of any wider developments within the business and returning to the workplace will feel like less of a culture shock.

Where the employee is returning from maternity leave, contact can take the form of Keeping In Touch (KIT) days. These are days, within the maternity period, which do not break maternity leave. The employee can work for up to 10 days without bringing maternity leave to an end or losing Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) or Maternity Allowance (MA). These days are not mandatory and will only take place where the employee wants them to. Employees cannot be made to work during maternity leave. Likewise, they cannot demand to have work during maternity leave.

A phased return may help a returning employee ease back into work. This could take the form of KIT days (as above) or by using any accrued annual leave days to create a shorter working week initially.

It might also be useful to have a plan in place to cover the first month or so of the employee’s return to work.

The plan might cover:

  • A ‘welcome back’ from the employee’s line manager
  • Opportunities to refresh skills
  • Opportunities to catch-up with the rest of the team
  • An update on projects and any changes to processes
  • The option of an informal review with the employee’s line manager

The plan may vary depending on how the employee feels, the length of their absence and the role they are returning to. Some people might feel unphased, even excited, about returning to work, while others may be more apprehensive. It’s important to emphasise that lines of communication are open and to encourage employees to speak honestly about how they are feeling.

As with any organisational change, preparation is important in ensuring returning employees feel as supported as possible. This will benefit the team as a whole and hopefully keep business operations running smoothly through the transition period.

About the author

Lisa joined RWA in 2014 as an e-Learning Assistant, designing training material for the Aviva Development Zone e-learning platform.

Her role as Head of Content and Communications involves the editorship of RWA Insight. It also includes reviewing e-learning content as well as providing proofreading, copywriting and standards support across the business.

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