Creating conditions for success: best practices for back to work

Do you have an effective return-to-work program? You should, says Beneva

Creating conditions for success: best practices for back to work


This article was produced in partnership with Beneva.

Welcoming back an employee who has been on disability is not without its challenges and is often a source of understandable worry for all parties. Developing an effective return-to-work program is a worthy investment, as it provides a roadmap for success.

And by centering your program around a caring and human approach, it helps alleviate anxiety – something Beneva is deeply dedicated to eradicating wherever possible.

To best support members of your team who are coming back aboard after a lengthy absence, start by aligning your procedures with common best practices, a few of which are outlined below.

Create conditions for success

Awareness of common pitfalls is the best place to start when developing a return-to-work program. Having the employee come back to work too quickly, excluding them or feeling uncomfortable in their presence — including indiscreet questions, judgment, or discussion about the absence — welcoming them back with a heavy workload or, conversely, not giving them enough responsibility to provide a sense of participating in a collective effort, as well as micro-managing or not following up at all, are all areas where workplaces can go astray.

The better an organization plans for the return of an absent team member, the higher the likelihood of a genuine return to work. Arm yourself with the proper resources. For example, offering orientation and being clear that there is support available for them reduces the risk of relapse after a disability, as the person feels their return is not just expected but welcome. Make sure the employee is aware of the services provided by the company’s Employee Assistance Program or through group insurance and lean on your HR team — it’s the input of specialists that will help create a solid approach to managing workplace attendance.

Ultimately, a smooth re-onboarding takes some finesse. The impact of positive, involved leadership is well recognized in the HR space and it’s no surprise it’s a crucial factor in this situation as well: a 2018 study from l'Ordre des Psychologues du Québec found that a manager with a heightened interest in taking action to facilitate the return of a team member increases the chance of success by 47%. That’s not a statistic you can afford to leave on the table when striving to create the right conditions for a successful return to work.

Communication, communication, communication

If they’re open to it, encourage the manager of the person who is off on disability to remain in contact over the absence. Maintaining open, trustworthy dialogue can make a significant difference in the tone of the leave: it humanizes the relationship and prevents prolonged periods of radio silence, which can be detrimental.

Managers should loop in their HR partners when determining how to approach contact. A good rule of thumb is to make an initial phone call as soon as possible after the employee is on disability and it is critical that the manager remain calm and not come across as pushy. Questions around the employee’s health status are best avoided, as is giving personal advice about health-related decisions. A solid best practice is to say something like: “Your colleagues were asking about you so I thought I’d check in. Is there a message you’d like me to pass on to them?” Additionally, avoid the question "How are you?” Although the intention behind this query may not be bad, it can create a feeling of discomfort in the employee and make them feel obliged to talk about their medical condition. During the call following the absence, the manager can:

  • Assess whether they can help their employee and refer them to the appropriate resources or services.
  • Ask the employee if he or she needs assistance in filing a claim with the insurer, and promptly forward the claim.
  • Tell them about the resources and services available to them.

If someone is uncomfortable reaching out verbally, encourage them to send it in writing instead. An email or a card reiterating their support and that the employee is still very much on their mind is just as effective.

When it comes time to return to work, the manager should make an effort to involve the employee as much as possible. Ask how they envision their return, if there are any specific supports they might need, and let them know about any changes to the team that may have happened while they were away.

Mobilize other employees

Another key component of a successful return to work is preparing the rest of the team for their colleague’s return. Once you have a return-to-work date, keep everyone in the loop. Reaching out in advance of the return also provides an opportunity to check in with the team: are there any questions or concerns around their colleague’s return to work?

The support of coworkers is invaluable during this time, so organizing a warm welcome back for the returning employee — such as a group message, a gift, or a team lunch — goes a long way. Open the lines of communication and brainstorm as a group how to ensure the person is able to settle back in seamlessly. Highlight the importance of contributing to a positive and inclusive environment by showing support, offering help, and being a good listener. Caution them against sharing personal advice, asking personal questions or inquiring about the absence, or treating the person differently whether that be “as a victim” or by excluding them.

Stick to the plan — but plan to make changes

No two people are alike, and that applies to the needs of those on disability as well. Return plans for individuals may include entitlement to certain accommodations, like the number or days worked or progression of tasks, so keep those points top-of-mind and check in with the person who is coming back about what requests they have or what they think will help with a smooth transition back to the office.

When an employee is set to return, prepare a personalized back-to-work plan with the appropriate specialists. Overall, a good rule of thumb is to treat the returning employee as if they were a new hire: send a meeting time and wait for the employee’s arrival, have their workstation with appropriate tools and accesses ready for them, schedule regular follow-ups and stay in tune with the person’s reactions, and take time to encourage your employee and highlight their successes.

Another best practice is for managers to ask themselves how they’d like to be supported if they were the ones returning from leave. Putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak, provides a great starting point when determining the right approach to take.

Flexibility and understanding

Above all, be flexible. Developing a comprehensive plan and keeping your focus on orientation and integration helps pave the way to a smooth return, but be prepared to change course or make adjustments as you go. Approach the situation with empathy and understanding, remembering that just because someone has returned to work, doesn’t mean their recovery is complete. Remember, there is a lot of anxiety around returning and that’s to be expected. Common concerns are:

  • Their health: prognosis, risk of recurrence, future medical follow up or treatment
  • Their work: their ability to repeat the same tasks, learn new ones, rub shoulders with colleagues with whom they may have had conflicts before leaving
  • Their personal life: the effects of their condition on personal activities or family, financial concerns

Again, employers should look to their own experience. After a vacation of two or three weeks, for example, do you immediately come back at 100% capacity? No, a period of adaptation to get your bearings and settle back into the routine of the workplace is expected: imagine how an employee feels returning after several weeks or months on disability.

The role of the manager cannot be understated and ensuring they accompany and support the returning employee; keep boundaries around their role by not acting like a therapist; are familiar with resources and services available within the organization and within the group insurance plan and are able to keep the returning employee well-informed; and overall approach the situation with sincerity and authenticity, the likelihood of a positive outcome is high.

It’s not one-size-fits-all — as many reasons as there are to be on a leave, there are just as many ways to return to work — but by thoughtfully developing a return-to-work program that respects all stakeholders, you increase your organization’s chances of achieving successful reintegration. Having a well-thought-out return-to-work program will be what gets everyone over the finish line.

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