Supporting employees returning after long-term leave
Senior Comms and Marketing Officer, Mental Health at Work
It can always feel a little daunting returning to work after some time off. If you’ve been, like maternity leave, after being unwell or caring for someone else, your life might look a lot different than before. Returning to your job can feel worrying. But going back to work at a time when things look and feel very different (like a pandemic!) can add an extra level of anxiety.
I was worried that I was missing out on opportunities
After my dad passed away a few years ago, I took almostto be with my family. Although work wasn’t really front-of-mind, I did occasionally get anxious pangs in the pit of my stomach when I thought of work – you know the ones. I was worried that I was missing out on opportunities, being forgotten or – probably worst of all – that I was being replaced. That they realised I wasn’t needed.
Ah.is a cruel mistress. The truth is, my employer at the time was fantastic. My manager was extremely respectful, understanding and supportive. She kept me in the loop with things that I was particularly concerned about, and eased me back into work when the time came. My colleagues were also just brilliant. Hearing from them made me realise that, actually, I was missed. I was needed.
We know that our workplaces play a huge role in our wellbeing. And our employers and peers can make a massive difference when it comes to being away from and returning to work. So, what’s important right now, in the midst of? I spoke to a few of my colleagues at Mind who’ve been away for the past year whilst they have their babies, or who are about to depart on maternity leave, to understand how they feel and what’s helpful.
It was a lonely year to not be in work
Alice from the Workplace Wellbeing team recently returned to work from maternity leave. She spoke about how being away during the pandemic has been difficult, for a number of reasons. “As someone whose job it is to support people’s wellbeing at work, I felt like I was missing out on being able to contribute during what has probably been the most rapid/significant change to how people work ever,” she said. “I was also worried that my knowledge and skills were probably dating faster than at any other possible time – like a 2020 mum-penalty multiplier!”
But anxieties aren’t just about the work itself. With relentless lockdowns and rules, Alice told me that it was a lonely year to not be in work. “With all the restrictions, I had far less opportunities to socialise than you would normally get during maternity leave.”
During these uncertain times, worries about returning to work are naturally going to be heightened. As a manager, it’s your role to make sure employees feel supported, feel welcomed back and are updated on any changes that have taken place in their absence. And having these conversations sooner rather than later is particularly important.
Keeping in touch (KIT) days are really crucial – and obviously now need to be done virtually. It’s worth considering that, if Zoom and MS Teams weren’t a normal part of your make up pre-COVID, your staff member might need walking through new ways of working.
Alice said – “Sometimes it was nice to have a KIT day remotely just for a bit of distraction and company – even if this did sometimes have to be done on mute, while bouncing with a baby in a sling!”
I spoke to Rachel from, too, who noted the importance of treating each situation individually – there isn’t necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ approach. “Some people might need to be more eased back in,” she said. “Their circumstances might look very different now. They may also have wellbeing needs that they didn’t have before.” So, it’s really important to have that conversation and see how their mental health is, particularly taking into account the pandemic. It might be an idea to ask them to complete a to better understand how they can be supported.
There’s the worry of balancing ‘new-mum brain’ and ‘work brain’
Jess, an Account Manager in Workplace Wellbeing, has also just returned from maternity leave. The last time she was at work was in the office, surrounded by colleagues and travelling on a packed train each day. Now it all looks and feels very different.
Being a new mum and balancing work is never easy. But, as a manager, there are practical things you can do that really take the pressure off. “All my IT equipment was ordered for me prior to my return, which was another stress I did not have to worry about.” Jess said. “I had a digital return to work plan to follow for the first few days, too.”
Both Jess and Alice agreed that a structured induction plan is really helpful when returning to work. There’s the worry of balancing ‘new-mum brain’ and ‘work brain,’ catching up on all the things you’ve missed whilst you’ve been off, and the pressure of wanting to do a good job. There’s likely to have beenwhilst your team members have been away; perhaps there’s a new strategy, a new leadership team… So, a gentle but structured refresher training is really worth putting together
“I feel like I don’t have time to get up to speed with anything beyond the essentials required to deliver my current project – especially in my new reduced hours and while juggling childcare. It would be great to have a mini version of what a new starter might experience to help me feel more confident again,” Alice said.
But what about if you’re about to embark on a period of leave, during such a time of change?
Chells is about to head off on maternity leave for the second time. “It’s hard to know how I will be working in the next month, let alone what I might be coming back to in just over a year’s time.” She says. “Whilst this is always true to a degree, it feels all the more uncertain now. It makes me feel really anxious about how I might be able to set myself up, to both keep in touch and return.”
Having worked through a pandemic whilst pregnant, Chells knows as well as the rest of us how quickly things can shift. It feels like, in work and in life, we can only plan a few weeks ahead at the moment. So, what can we do to put people at ease who are about to be away for a while?
“One of my main reflections about the last time I was on maternity leave was the feeling of being out of sight and out of mind in a work sense.” Chells told me. “And so, the things that helped me most were keeping in touch with the team where possible – on a social and work level. The same coping mechanisms would apply now. If anything, they are much more important this time.”
Making time to do the fun stuff and catch up with everyone informally should be prioritised
We know that KIT days are important. But arranging social catch ups whilst your employee is away will help them feel more involved, more a part of the team. In fact, whilst we’re all working in a virtual way, making time to do the fun stuff and catch up with everyone informally should be prioritised. To help us stay connected. We can’t just chat in the kitchen, go for a coffee, have lunch together, or go for a drink after work. The lack of human interaction is difficult for all of us. Rachel from CIPD agrees –
“As a manager, don’t be afraid to reach out whilst your employee is away. Let them know you’re still there. Some people want more contact than others, so be led by them – have open and honest conversations about what they need. There’s no hard and fast rule about how much you should stay in touch, but in principle, it’s really good to. It shows that the organisation really cares.”
Like we’ve said before – in one sense, we’re all in it together – but everyone’s situation is different. You never know how someone is doing really, especially through a screen. So, as a manager, schedule frequent time to do something silly with your team or just say hello. And don’t forget about those who are away. It’s more important to them to be included than you might realise.