Managing a positive return to work: a guide for employers.

Returning to work after a leave of absence can be a huge shock for any employee. Whether it is through sickness, maternity leave or more recently furlough, it is crucial that as an employer we manage the transition back to work well.

Part of our role as employers is fostering an inclusive culture so the returning employee feels valued and listened to on their return.

Although every employee’s circumstances will be different, there are some principles which apply in most return to work situations. Below sets out these principles, allowing for a smoother transition back to work for both the employee and employer:

1. Build Good Communication

Good communication is central to a good return to work transition for everyone. Make sure time is set aside to call employees in the run up to their return to talk them through what has happened during their absence and bring them up to date with current projects. These calls allow both parties to catch up in a more informal way – to ask them how they are, and understand some of their experiences in the time they’ve been off. Good communication helps build trust and gives employees a chance to share any worries they have about returning.

Once they are back in the workplace, keep the lines of communication open with regular check ins to ask how their transition back to work is going, and to ask if there is any support they need to help them adjust.

2. Have a flexible approach

Individual circumstances will have an effect on how you as an employer support an employees’ return to work. Being flexible in your approach to managing these circumstances is crucial. Some employees will return with enthusiasm and keen to be thrown in at the deep end, whilst others will need more support to build up to the responsibilities they had before they left.

Where appropriate, offer refresher training or the ability to shadow another member of the team for a short period of time to help build confidence. Set short term goals and focus on their day to day roles rather than any extra responsibilities or development opportunities. Once you feel the employee has adjusted back into their roles, you can build their confidence further by discussing their goals for the next few months with them.

Remember that everyone will adjust differently and at different rates. It’s important to balance your expectations as an employer with the wellbeing and confidence of individual employees, especially in those first few weeks.

3. Be pro-active about mental health and wellbeing support

Recognising the affect a period of time off work has on an employees’ mental health is a really important part of ensuring a good transition back to work. As employers we have a responsibility to be pro-active in providing information and support to employees around mental health.

“The real focus for me is ensuring our people are informed and know where to go to get help if they are struggling or have concerns about returning to work. Everyone is different, and although in many cases it’s important to talk, people also need access to trained specialists for the right support, which we provide via our Employee Assistance Programme.” Head of HR

It’s vital to make sure employees know where they can go for advice or support. Making your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) accessible and reminding employees regularly of the mental health and wellbeing resources available is essential to workplace good practice. Not everyone is comfortable talking to their manager/colleagues about mental health issues. Employers should make sure there are easy ways for employees to discuss issues anonymously as well as face to face.

(Commenting on a recent YouGov survey on employee mental health during the third lockdown, Bill Richards, UK managing director at Indeed said: “It is essential that as people return to the workplace, employers continue to communicate with the employees about mental health and build a culture where workers feel supported.”)

Some tips to help employees return to work:

  • Welcome employees back in person where you can.
  • Provide short term deadlines during the first few weeks back before setting longer-term objectives.
  • Adapt your management style to meet the requirements of your returning employee.
  • Give regular positive feedback to rebuild confidence.
  • Be aware of mental health factors that may affect performance, and make sure you give employees easy access to support.