Returning to Work After an Extended Absence
Let's face it: life happens. We get sick, we take time off to care for aging parents, we have babies, we take sabbaticals to travel, or to go to school. All of these important events are part of a rich and complex life.
However, returning to work after a long absence can be just as challenging as being away. It can also be challenging for your boss, who has to help a colleague make the transition back to work.
So how do you do it? How do you learn about everything you missed while you were gone? How do you adjust your goals, which may now have changed, to fit with your work environment? And how to you readjust to the discipline of the workplace?
Plan Your Return
When you choose a time to come back to work, discuss this with your boss. Make sure you decide on a date that's easy for both of you. If your boss is managing a big project for the next three weeks, then try to return after this. If possible, it's usually better to choose a time when things aren't too busy.
You might want to discuss returning in smaller steps. For example, you could work one or two days per week, then increase to three days, and then go back to full-time. A slow return can be much easier than immediately going back to a full-time schedule, especially after a long illness or maternity leave.
It's also important to let your co-workers know that you're back. Don't just walk in and settle into your old office – this might be a bit confusing and stressful for those who work with you. Take the time to send out an email to let everyone know that you've returned, or have a meeting with your closest colleagues to learn what's happened while you were away.
Reassess Your Goals
Whatever your reason for being away, it was most likely a life-changing event. This means that your goals and priorities may now be very different from what they were before.
Take some time to assess where you are right now, and where you'd like to go. Make a list of your priorities and goals. Are there things that you cannot, or will not, tolerate anymore?
You also need to consider those around you. For example, if you've just returned from maternity leave, then you may no longer be able to work late. However, just because you have to leave at 5:00 pm promptly, that doesn't mean you should automatically expect co-workers who don't have kids to stay late and finish up.
Yes, your priorities and goals may be different now, but you're also part of a team again. If you receive help from co-workers, thank them. And look for ways to make sure you don't always ask them for help – or ways that you can help them when they need it. Perhaps you could shorten your lunch break, or come in a little earlier one day a week, to help others in return for the help they give you.
If you're the manager of a returning worker, then make sure you recognize the extra effort others may give to help this person – and perhaps offer them some compensation for this.
Learn What You've Missed
Once you're back, catching up and learning everything that you've missed can be difficult. A lot may have changed since you left, and you might feel pressured to do too much too soon to prove that "you're back."
Although this is a good goal, be easy on yourself. You've been away for a while, so most people will understand if you're not back to a full routine on your second day. It's going to take time to readjust, so don't overwhelm yourself by trying to learn and do everything at once.
Your company may have hired someone to temporarily handle your work during your absence. When you return, that person is probably your best resource for learning what you need to know.
Ask questions and take notes on what this person has done while you were gone. Don't rely on your memory. If you take notes, you won't have to worry about missing an important piece of information.
You could also talk with your colleagues about what your replacement did while you were away. Try to find out what that person did – or didn't do – well. Then you can continue the good things, and avoid the bad.
After a long absence, getting used to the discipline – and sometimes the dress code – of an office environment can be difficult. It's going to take a lot of energy to get readjusted. Try to keep your personal commitments to a minimum when you first return to work. It might not be the best idea to go out for drinks every night with co-workers, at least for a while. Give yourself time to rest and relax at the end of the day – then you'll have more energy for work.
Here are a few things to help you get back to work:
- If you're overwhelmed by too many emails, use the "Out of Office" feature to send automatic replies. This can let people know you've just returned after a long absence, and that you'll respond as soon as you can. People are often more understanding than you might think.
- To learn about what happened in the company while you were gone, read past company newsletters, contact clients, and talk with co-workers.
- If you've returned after a maternity leave, illness, or caregiving experience, you might still have to deal with emergencies. Make a robust back-up plan for days like this. Know what you'll do if your babysitter can't work, or if your parent needs a sudden trip to the doctor. Save vacation or personal days to use on these occasions. And discuss options with your boss. For example, maybe you can sometimes work from home.
- Ask for help! Don't try to do everything yourself. If you communicate with your colleagues openly and honestly, they'll probably be more than happy to help with your workload or just listen when you need it. More often than not, people are considerate and understanding. Ask for help when you need it, and you'll probably get it.
- Try to keep a positive outlook. Returning to work, especially the first week, is probably going to feel completely strange. But that first week of your time off probably felt strange also, remember? You CAN do it – just give yourself time to adjust, and take one small step at a time.
Returning to work after a long absence can be stressful, but you can do things to reduce this stress. Communicate with your boss to choose a good return date, and perhaps you can work part-time for a while. Reassess and replan your goals, which may have now changed.
However, remember that other people's priorities may not have changed. Don't automatically expect others to do the work you can't complete, and be sure to thank them when they help.
Your temporary replacement is a valuable resource when you return. This person can help you learn what happened when you were away, and you can use his or her performance to set guidelines for your own performance.
Lastly, allow yourself time to rest and relax at the end of the day. Returning to work takes a lot of energy, so keep personal commitments to a minimum for a while.