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How to Help Employees Return to Work After an Extended Leave

By Mariah Collins, SHRM-CP on Oct 12, 2021
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employees back to work after extended leave

Returning to work after an extended leave can be a difficult transition for any employee. Subtle shifts in the workplace environment or culture can leave an employee feeling not only overwhelmed in terms of their imminent job responsibilities but also psychologically impacted. Mental, emotional and/or physical changes an employee experiences over the course of their leave may also contribute to a strenuous transition back. Among the most common reasons for extended leave are those connected to family/personal health and medical issues. Approximately 15 million US workers per year take family and medical leave.

Regardless of how long an employee has been out of the office following an extended leave, be it weeks or perhaps even months, there should be actionable protocol in place and a clearly outlined return-to-work policy. Making it easy on a returning employee not only benefits that employee but also enables the company to continue to function without major disruption.

An Employee Returning to Work After Medical Leave: The Necessity of Reintegration

A key part of any employee’s return is successful reintegration. Prior to their extended leave, they likely worked with a team in some context. Those team members have since continued on in their daily workplace endeavors, while the employee in question has been “out of the loop.” This can cause a critical disconnect if not addressed.

This is where fostering a company culture in which team members genuinely care about one another and consequently “have one another’s backs” becomes especially important. Ultimately, the returning employee needs to feel welcomed and wanted. This inevitably elevates their sense of self-worth and subsequently, their sense of worth to the company. Feeling welcomed by the team will greatly help impact the entirety of the returning employee’s post-leave productivity and performance.

To ensure a healthy and productive transition upon an employee returning to work after medical leave, prior to their absence there needs to be a transparent set of expectations and guidelines communicated. The more detailed and inclusive, the smoother any return process will be.

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What Should Your Return-to-Work Policy Look Like?

While there is no set formula when it comes to creating a return-to-work policy, most businesses likely have existing leave policies in place which could be further fleshed out to specifically address issues associated with extended medical leave. Among the issues this type of policy should speak to are:

  • The way in which expectations will be addressed. Following their return, the employee should know what is expected of them. Having a plan in place to communicate with the employee prior to their leave, throughout the duration of their leave, and once they’ve returned from their leave will help maximize the understanding of expectations of both the employer and the employee.

  • Their essential job functions. Depending on the circumstances of the leave, an employee’s original job description may need to be changed upon return from the extended leave. Openly communicating with the employee throughout the entirety of the leave will help ensure a greater understanding by both parties. The employee will have a better understanding of their capabilities as related to the job for which they were hired, and this will present a clearer picture of any modifications or accommodations that may need to be implemented on behalf of the organization and included in the new job description.

    For example, your return-to-work policy might explore remote work options in certain cases. There could be new training requirements in light of modified job functions that may need to be added to the job description under the “essential functions” section. It bears repeating, that implementing relevant changes to job functions will largely stem from an in-depth and ongoing conversation with the employee through every step of the leave process.

  • Assess any accommodations that will have to be made. Beyond simply modifying an employee’s job description, there may need to be other accommodations made upon an employee’s return. If they are in some way restricted due to ongoing health issues, the employee’s health needs should be accounted for by considering the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer must seek to make reasonable accommodations for an employee to be able to perform essential job functions, as long as those accommodations don’t cause the employer undue hardship. Ensuring that your organization adheres to and is in compliance with any return-to-work guidelines due to a disability is imperative. Such accommodations may include modified responsibilities, the option to work remotely, job sharing, or enhanced accessibility to work facilities.

  • Verify compliance with all state and federal laws and regulations. While a return-to-work policy may be developed in such a way that it is unique to a company and that company’s culture, the golden rule is to comply with all state and federal regulations. Violating ADA policies, FMLA guidelines, or worker’s compensation statutes can cause major problems for a company.

Unsure about FMLA rights? Check out this blog post: Can We Talk? Avoiding Legal Land Mines with Employees on FMLA Leave >>

Seek the Help of a Trusted and Knowledgeable Source

Establishing a protocol for those employees returning to work after an extended period of time is a rather involved process. Navigating the rules and regulations on top of creating an environment that promotes positive reintegration can be difficult for a smaller business especially. If you need guidance in terms of creating truly effective workplace policies, we would love to consult with you.

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