The Impact of Returning to Work after a Long Break (and what you can do about it)

With some employees having been on furlough for weeks or even months now, and some having worked from home and only now starting to transition back to the office, it wouldn’t be too surprising if they may be feeling uneasy.

We know from research that the longer a period of absence, the less likely a successful return and integration will be.

People’s experience of a long break, especially over this turbulent time, will differ from person to person.  One person’s positive experience could be another’s worst nightmare, and regardless of how an individual has coped being away, there are likely to be questions or concerns that they have about coming back.

Research shows that employers could retain 50% more of their returners from long term leave if they took simple steps to ease the return process.

In August 2020, there were 9.6m furloughed jobs.  50% of those people reported feeling anxious and concerned in the previous two weeks and 80% said that working for long periods at home had negatively impacted their mental health.

Having a supportive and understanding business culture builds high levels of trust and engagement.  However, people have reported returner processes being clinical, cold and non-supportive.

When dealing with any significant change in our lives, we tend to go on a journey, ranging from shock and denial, to anger and frustration, to hopelessness before making a plan and reaching acceptance (for more information see the Kubler-Ross change curve).

When we are faced with dealing with change, if we are continuously in our comfort zone, we are less likely to be feeling inclined to grow and change away from this state, conversely, if we are faced with too big or too frequent change, we are likely to enter the panic zone, not feeling able to control and respond appropriately. When we perceive that something isn’t fair, that we don’t have control over it or it challenges our confidence and assumptions, we are likely to resist change.

When we are gently stretched, we are able to respond in a much more positive way to the change that is required of us.  In business, we often need employees to be in this position to move the business forward and continue succeeding.

Following any period of long term absence, we are likely to question our ability and usefulness, be concerned about how much has changed in our absence, about picking up and developing new relationships with our colleagues or we may find that our motivation and personal situations have changed that present us with challenges that we didn’t previously have to deal with.

What can you do about this as an employer?

Here are a few tips that we think could help transition people back to work:

  • Maintain contact with your employees throughout and leading up to return from absence.
  • Seek to understand the feelings of the returning employee and the challenges they face so you can break down barriers to returning – focussing on the individual rather than having a blanket approach
  • Educate your business leaders/managers to be aware of the signs of someone struggling to return to work and how to approach this if they notice issues
  • Take positive and targeted steps to return an employee, much as you would do with onboarding a new employee
  • Include your employee in correspondence and updates during their leave. Furloughed workers can’t do work for you, but they can keep themselves up to date with what’s going on
  • Provide training and development opportunities for employees who want and need this to come back and settle quickly in their roles

When an individual feels appreciated, understood and valued and when they are in an environment that is safe and trusting and where they have good social connections and opportunities to develop and thrive, they are far more likely to stay with you and be engaged.  This is basic human nature and getting it right can be the difference between valued employees leaving you or being your greatest supporter.

At Agile HR, we can help you to put in place steps and plans to support your employees back to the ‘new normal’, whatever that may look like.  For more information contact me at vicky@agilehrconsulting.com.  Visit our website www.agilehrconsulting.com for more information about us and to view our testimonials.

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