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How to Manage Your People’s Return From Extended Leave

Kevin Dunne 

November 27, 2019

Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder. Returning to work after a long-term illness, family upheaval, mental health episode, maternity, or other extended leave can be a difficult time for a returnee – and the company welcoming them back.

The organization’s structural, procedural and cultural practices will go a long way towards determining how successful any reintegration is. To put the issue in context, according to a 2018 Integrated Benefits Institute report, U.S. employees covered for sick time, workers’ compensation, disability, and family and medical leave benefits:

  • were absent for some 893 million days a year due to illness;
  • incurred an estimated 527 million lost work days due to impaired performance.

That makes a total of some 1.4 billion days annually.

Or as IBI President Thomas Parry, PhD, put it, “The cost of poor health to employers is greater than the combined revenues of Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, eBay, and Adobe.”

In the UK, a 2015 report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated the cost of extended leave – of six months or more – at £4.17 billion to the private sector. That’s up from £3.13 billion in 2012. Allied to the costs of recruitment and training, it is clearly in the interests of organizations to get it right when it comes to re-onboarding long-term absentees. So, what is the best approach?

Understanding Priorities

In a nutshell, Alison, head of Human Resources for a large UK organization, described it as, “A good return to work discussion, an agreed plan of action and checking in regularly to ensure all is well.”

Fellow U.K. H.R. professional Loran Craft said, “It’s always a priority to understand what this person has been through. From a business perspective, it’s about what’s changed while that person’s been away. Because where they left off is probably a million miles away from where we are now.”

Mind Tools’ Canada-based Community Engagement Facilitator Michele Doucet experienced returning to work after seven months of illness herself. She admitted: “Coming back from a leave is disorienting. In addition to getting used to working a full day, you also must deal with any lingering health effects.”

Feeling comfortable back in the work environment after extended leave is, then, definitely a hurdle. But there are a number of ways that organizations can help returnees through this unsettling period. That starts with pre-return conversations, through “Break the Ice Days” and “Keeping In Touch Days.” 

Break the Ice

Loran said, “Pre-return conversations might be off-site or a couple of phone calls. And having a friendly check-in where you say, ‘Looking forward to seeing you. Is there anything you’re particularly worried about?’ is important. The returnee might say ‘OK, I’m ready to come back but it might require some phasing.’

“This might be coming back on different hours, in a different role, to a different workload, or working from home. It’s really about getting the balance right between what works for the returnee and the company.”

Having shaped the way ahead with a pre-return chat, Break the Ice days are a great next step. Loran is a big fan and said: “It’s nice to get someone in, take the team out for lunch, something social. It’s always helpful for people to have a catch-up. And from the company’s point of view, it’s always money well spent, when it’s on someone who wants to come back and contribute.”

“Keeping in Touch” (KIT) days take the process a stage further, and provide a clear bridge back to a full-time return. Loran said, “KIT days are best practice for maternity leavers. And, in the U.K., it’s a right for returning mothers. But you could apply that to any long-term leave.

“They have the option of up to 10 paid days and they can use them however they want to. They could come in on a training day, or once a month when they’re off. A lot of people also tend to use them towards the end of their absence.”

Tailored to Suit

In Canada, employees must be with an organization for three consecutive months to qualify for sick leave. In the U.S., there are currently no federal legal requirements for paid sick leave.

But Michele added, “Generally speaking, in the U.S. and Canada most organizations, especially medium to large sized, have a ‘Return to Work’ process. There is a transition plan developed, where H.R. works with the health and wellness team to develop a plan, tailored to the individual.

“Throughout my ‘ease-back’, starting out at two mornings a week, I was frequently contacted by a member of the health and wellness team. They made sure I was comfortable and discussed any concerns I had.  At no time did I feel pressured to return to full capacity early.”

So, culture is a vital component in defining how well – or badly – any return after extended leave works out. Alison makes the point that, “You need to ensure line managers are really interested in the well-being of their team members. They need to be committed to ensuring staff are supported back into work.”

Get Managers on Board

The quality of line managers – and the qualities they need – is a recurring theme, along with pre-setting expectations. That means ensuring everyone realizes there will be a “lag” time for returnees in getting back to their previous performance levels.

Alison stressed, “It’s about well trained and confident managers, rather than corporate policies. You need managers who are able to listen to their team members. H.R.’s role is to coach and support managers in this.”

Loran agreed, adding: “You have to remind managers that it’s like onboarding returnees again, really.” As for must-have qualities managers require, for Loran, emotional intelligence is king. She said: “It’s about appreciating that just being back in an office full of people can be difficult after being home for six months.

“It’s the ability to pick up if somebody needs a time out. Managers need to read the room, not just bluster on and hope for the best.” Of course, a return to work can mean the returnee has a different, sometimes negative, attitude to work. And if things aren’t going well, managers must be ready to act as well.

Structured Support

Loran said: “Line managers need to tread carefully. They should be supportive and encouraging but, if there comes a point where things haven’t improved, there needs to be a different conversation.”

The company’s role at this juncture is to provide structure and support for managers. That means monitoring the progress of returnees. As Loran explained, “We will schedule meetings, to check in and say ‘Hi, how’s it going? We’ve done X, Y, Z: how is that working for you?’

“And it’s helpful to schedule those touchpoints in advance, so somebody knows they aren’t just being thrown in at the deep end. We’ve got quite a structured process around performance, so any ‘difficulties’ should be picked up in those one-to-ones. It’s about finding out whether it’s that they can’t be bothered, or because health or other issues are still impacting on their work.”

As Alison says, “A happy and well workforce will be high performing.” And that is something everyone can sign up to.

For further information on dealing with extended leave of absence, try these Mind Tools articles:

Handling Long-Term Absences
Reducing Sick Leave
How to Manage a Grieving Team Member

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