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Top tips for helping returners return

At some point or another, most organisations are likely to be faced with employees who are absent for long periods – be it due to long-term sickness, maternity or adoption leave or even secondments. With the introduction of shared parental leave next year, the number of people absent from the workplace for a month or more is only likely to increase.  All being well, these people should return to work at some point. However, the transition back isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds.

As someone who has just returned to work after a year’s maternity leave, I have experienced first-hand what it is like to come back after time away, and believe me when I say it has been a shock. It takes time to re-familiarise yourself with old systems, re-establish contacts and rebuild confidence in your ability to carry out a particular job. What is clear though – both from my experience and that of fellow-mums returning after maternity leave – is that the attitude of employers can be paramount to the reintegration and retention of returners.  Not only that, get it wrong in a maternity or disability situation and employers could find themselves facing allegations of discrimination.

So what can employers do to help employees back to work?

  1. Start in advance.  The more someone is kept informed about key company/team news while they are away, the more involved they are likely to feel in the team, helping to make it easier for them to come back.  If employers are concerned that a particular individual might not want to receive such communications, check with them first rather than assume they do not want to be contacted.
  2. Consider ways to ease the transition.  This could be by allowing someone to have a gradual return via an initial period of reduced hours / days.  If someone has a disability, this may well be a reasonable adjustment.  However, someone returning from maternity leave could equally be allowed to use KIT days or holiday to work shorter weeks initially.  A reduction / suspension of targets can also be helpful in allowing a returner to find their feet.
  3. Plan the first day/week back.  Remember, while it might be business as usual for you, that first day is a big (and possibly scary) thing for someone who has been absent for a while, so some sort of plan can help them feel less like a spare part.  An initial meeting with HR / a line manager is always a good option; as is IT training.  And don’t forget to tell returners where they should go on their first day, particularly if their desk has moved.
  4. Allow for initial teething problems.  From experience, I know how hard it can be getting out of the door with a small baby on time and with everything you need!  I imagine commuting after an illness may also be pretty daunting.  So recognise that returners may be late now and again while their new routine beds in.  Similarly, be prepared for an initial drop in confidence and consider giving returners smaller tasks to start with to help with this.
  5. Create a support network.  Provide returners with a buddy who has survived the return to work after absence.  Perhaps give them a budget to go out for coffee / lunch so that they can share experiences openly and honestly away from the office. 
  6. Review how things are going.  It is all too easy to focus on the first week and assume everything will be fine after that.  However, sometimes it is only after the initial buzz has subsided, and routine has set in, that people feel most overwhelmed and problems come to light.  Plan a review meeting / catch up coffee after three months to check how things are going.
  7. See returners as an asset.  It can feel like hard work – particularly if you are already stretched – dealing with the logistics of someone’s return.  However, employers might want to consider how to use an individual’s return to their advantage.  For example, could it be an opportunity to get in touch with old contacts who have fallen by the wayside?  Or a chance to reinvigorate the team by holding a team away day or reshuffling desks?

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