How to Welcome an Employee Back from Medical Leave

Employees take leaves of absence for all sorts of reasons, from dealing with a cancer diagnosis to caring for a sick child. In one survey, 13% of U.S. employees reported taking time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act in the past 12 months.

When the employee comes back to the office, of course, there is often a sense of relief, both because your colleague has returned from a difficult time and because the extra work absorbed by coworkers can now be handed back. But leaders sometimes forget that there are many steps that must occur before employees can return to full capacity. Here are some specific actions that will help ensure a smooth transition for your employee and you.

Remember to Check In During the Leave
During a typical week, managers meet with their teams for check-ins. Similarly, plan to check in periodically with your team member on leave. Create an individualized schedule that works for you and the team member. Obviously, when they’re in the midst of a chaotic time, office check-ins aren’t likely to be a priority, but you can expand them as the situation stabilizes. A good starting point is checking in on a monthly basis, but of course this depends on the length of the leave. Keeping up even occasional communication will help your team member feel valued and engaged when they are out of the office, and it demonstrates your confidence in and support of their work.

You can talk with your employee to find the method of communication that best suits them, whether it’s quick emails, phone calls, or perhaps an occasional face-to-face meet-up if they’re on extended leave and their situation allows for it. For instance, your check-in might be a simple email such as: “Hi Carlos, I thought I would check in and say hello today. Can I help you with a meal or dropping off paperwork? All the best, Anne.”

Another type of team member might like to chat and hear about what is going on in the office. For example, while I was on leave for my cancer recovery, it was a nice, supportive surprise when an HR executive I was working with checked on my progress.

Reach Out Right Before Their Return
You may have completed a check-in or two with your employee while they were out on leave. But even more important than a brief check-in is the communication right before the staff member returns to the office. First, remind them to make sure they have a conversation with HR for the transition back to the office. Second, it is important to ask about how they would like their return announced. Sometimes the employee might want to return without a lot of fanfare. It is important to honor privacy in terms of what the staff member wants to divulge, so prepare for a brief conversation. For example, unless your employee directs you otherwise, it’s a good idea to avoid proclamations about their health (such as declaring that their treatment was a success or that they’re “cured”). An example of a return announcement might be: “We are delighted to announce that Amara is returning from her leave of absence. She will be back in the office on May 6.” It’s simple, but it gets the job done.

Think Through the Precise Details of Their Return
As a first step, consider how you can create meaningful touchpoints that create a welcoming experience. For instance, you might meet the employee at the door when they arrive at the office, or have flowers or some other welcoming item waiting for them at their desk.

Think about other positive touchpoints for the first day — for instance, you could have lunch brought into the office or walk the employee around to greet their coworkers again. Schedule a time with the senior leader so that they can welcome your employee back as well. Lastly, end the first day early so that your employee can ease back into the workflow.

Provide a Phased Transition
In the early weeks of your employee’s return, focus on providing background on projects and results. This extra time and effort will help the staff member get oriented and set them up for success later on.

Recognize that because of medical appointments or fatigue, your employee’s schedule might need to be different than before. For example, before their medical leave, a team member may have consistently begun the day at 8 AM, but now, with the medical changes, a 10 AM start might be what they need.

With these parameters in mind, focus on some small, quick-win projects to jump-start the employee’s work in a meaningful manner. For example, after my medical leave, I didn’t take on projects where I needed to expend a lot of energy, such as long presentations. Instead, I focused on tasks that were manageable even with reduced energy, such as sending follow-up emails, doing research for a client, and setting up calls.

Check In More Frequently
With your returning employee, think about providing additional attention, as though you had a new employee joining the team. A new employee typically receives extra support on projects and background information to ensure they’re transitioning successfully, and you should do the same with your returning colleague. The most important milestone is the first 30 days. In the 30-day plan, set up a schedule of check-ins with peers, team members, and other stakeholders to share important initiatives and changes that have occurred in their absence. The most important meeting to facilitate is with the team member who took over the employee’s work while they were out. A brief daily meeting should be set with both parties so that original responsibilities can gradually shift back.

After the first 30 days, the meeting schedules can be scaled back to biweekly or so until there is a successful transition of all responsibilities. But remember that transition scheduling should be fluid since each employee has a unique experience and situation returning to the workplace.

With a bit of work, empathy, and a process in place, you can ease the transition back from an employee on medical leave. But most important, remember that the small details — such as greeting them personally upon their return, or briefing them thoroughly so they can hit the ground running — make a disproportionate difference in the motivation and empowerment of your team member.

Source: https://hbr.org/2018/04/how-to-welcome-an-employee-back-from-medical-leave

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