Your absence from work may have been for a happy reason - the start of a family or the birth of a brother/sister - but it may also be for unforeseen reasons, either a long-term sickness, stress, or loss of a loved one. Whatever the cause, returning to work comes with mixed feelings. It’s not uncommon to approach the day with imposter syndrome concerns and doubts over how you will manage. Here are some ways to help ease the anxiety and make it a positive experience.
1. Communicate in advance: When an absence is planned it’s easier to have a date in mind when you are likely to return but when matters aren’t as straightforward it may not be as clear when a return can occur. The key in both instances is to ensure that you establish a dialogue with your employer that is open, honest, and considerate. If a date cannot be easily established, it is important to have regular discussions to ensure that both parties are helping one another while forming a strategy to ease a return. Depending upon your role, the relevance of the season may need to be taken into account as to when is best for you to go back to work to mirror the natural peaks and troughs of work.
2. Set realistic expectations: Your life has understandably altered since you went on extended leave, whether you have a new baby in the house or you are recovering from a prolonged illness or a trauma – your priorities, outlook and values will have altered. Ensuring that you re-establish your boundaries is important. This goes together with having solid communication channels in place, if for example, you are juggling a young family, you may want to build in some hybrid working patterns or ensure you leave work on time to get home for your child’s bedtime. Similarly with recovery from an illness you want to ensure that keeping yourself well is your priority and that might be by working hours or taking time out for exercise and wellbeing. Here, the key is letting your colleagues and other key stakeholders know what your new working routine is going to be. If your role involves working with heavy machinery or long hours outside using gardening equipment, then a risk assessment must be performed to ensure you are able to continue with those duties. Those with medical conditions or a recent illness should consult their GP and get a ‘fit for work’ letter.
3. Be kind to yourself: You are unlikely to be the same person who left the office for their leave as the one that has returned. Be kind to yourself and ensure you channel a positive inner voice. You are no doubt doing a great job and your productivity is just as strong, even if you must now be strict about the hours you can work in the office and when you need to leave. Similarly, the business may be facing new agendas, challenges, and projects – give yourself time to get up to speed with all the new events, members of staff and work assignments.
4. Learn to say ‘no’: Many of us must acquire the confidence to say ‘no’ to all demands and if you more naturally align with taking more and more on, this might be the key skill you need to learn to keep in control, happy and balanced. If you find it too tricky to pitch an immediate ‘no’ then learn to stall the decision. Don’t immediately fall into the trap of saying that you will make it work or that you want to be involved. This is about protecting yourself, your work priorities, family, and wellbeing. Asking for some time to understand the details, job scope or new requirements shows that you are a considered professional. As always, it’s always better to decline a demand then be put in the position of being unable to fulfil it later down the line.
5. Establish a support system: We all need friends, mentors, and family support and, when you have experienced a significant change, illness, or trauma in your life then it’s vital that you don’t feel alone. Support comes in many guises and that may mean a collection of close allies that either can be there to share your lowest moments, provide guidance and advice or pitch in to support the load at home. If your return to work follows the arrival of a new child, ensuring that your childcare is lined up well in advance is crucial. This may mean settling a child into a nursery setting, introducing a nanny at home, or starting a child into reception class. If possible, managing a handover before you go back to work is ideal so that any teething problems can be ironed out. If you are going back to work after a long illness, ensure that any ongoing care is on hand and that any medication or hospital appointments are available, and dates secured. Being organised is the watchword.
6. Consider a phased return: Going in full throttle to the same hours as you did previously can be overwhelming after a long period of time off. Consider phasing yourself in gently with part-time, contracted hours over a period until you are ready to take on the full role. This may also act as a good way of establishing what you can realistically manage and whether a discussion about a more permanent move to a scaled down role needs to occur.
Even where a return to work is a happy and ‘looked-forward’ to event, it is often wrought with anxiety after an extended period of absence. Knowing where to go for support, how to manage your time, ways to say ‘no’ and how to put your new priorities first is the key to ensuring that work, ‘works’ for you and your new outlook. Being open, honest, and having a two-way dialogue with your employer will ensure that nothing is a surprise and that both parties understand the parameters of capability and what needs to be put in place to ensure the partnership is equitable and happy.
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