When employees leave for an extended period of time, employers must take on several responsibilities. For example, other workers must take over duties of the missing employee, insurance representatives and unions must receive the documents they need, and supervisors must keep track of the employee's progress and anticipate how much longer they will be gone. However, according to Safety1 Industries, one of the most important challenges of an extended absence actually comes at the very end: the transition back to full-time work.
Before employees return to work after long absences, it is important for everyone to be on the same page about their timeline, expectations, and whether they're really ready to come back. Of course, this will be different for every single person and situation. Just as the reasons for taking a leave are complex and various – physical and mental illnesses, stress, and workplace injuries are some of the most common – so are the ways in which people re-adjust to their daily routines.
This transition period can be tough on both the employee and the employer, so some businesses are now spreading it out across multiple weeks. This strategy is called a "phased return," and it has a variety of benefits for both parties.
Instead of going from zero to sixty, employees who make phased returns to work are able to take their time and increase their pace as they regain their bearings. They work fewer hours, gradually increasing the length of their shifts and the number of responsibilities they take on. Eventually, they're back to their full duties as an employee, but they have had time to adjust along the way.
Any illness or injury that merits a long-term absence is probably a serious one, and employees should not be expected to continue on as though they never left at all. Employers also benefit when they work to accommodate their employees' needs, because a properly healed and acclimated employee is, ultimately, more productive. It is important for all parties to acknowledge the employee's cause of absence and how it will affect their return, whether that means accounting for psychological trauma or simply familiarizing them with complex processes they may have forgotten.
Doctors may also help employers determine when and if an employee is fit to return. In some cases, that may actually mean recommending an earlier phased return over a later abrupt return. For example, in the United Kingdom, where long-term absences cost £100 billion every year, many doctors write "fit notes" that outline adjustments employers could make in order to welcome their employees back earlier. However, employers have much better knowledge of the specific skills that will be required of their employees, so it's important to take both perspectives into account.
Although phased returns are more gradual and take longer to implement than abrupt returns, they often speed up the employee's return rather than slowing it down. That's because when employers do not expect employees to resume their old duties immediately, they make it easier for employees to return while they are still healing and acclimating, rather than staying home and earning paid leave while someone else is paid to replace them.
For older employees, phased returns may also delay retirement and give their employers several extra years of service and productivity. Hiring new employees costs more than retaining current employees, so it is wise for employers to give older workers enough time to heal and readjust before returning to work. Older people are more likely to get sick or injured, but that does not mean their injuries and illnesses have to be career-ending.
Of course, morale also gets a pleasant boost when employers are more conscientious about their workers' needs. Employees need time to rest and recover after long illnesses. If their employer expects them to return before they are ready – or has nothing to do with them until they are fully healed – it can lead to feelings of isolation, resentment, and failure. By contrast, employees who make phased returns are able to stay "in the loop" with their colleagues, feel like a valued member of the team, and avoid making costly mistakes on projects they are not ready to handle yet.
The number one rule of phased returns is simple: communicate. The University of Cambridge emphasizes the importance of maintaining contact with employees throughout their absences for good reason. Open, consistent communication is important for both parties, and it should begin as soon as the employer realizes that an employee's absence will be lengthy.
If you want to implement phased returns in your own workforce, it is important to stay up-to-date with each employee's health status by checking in often and discussing their options. This prevents employees from feeling socially isolated or neglected, but it also makes it easier for you to form a realistic game plan for their eventual return.
For example, as your employee begins to heal, you might discuss adjusted duties and shorter shifts. Consider together how long they would be comfortable working and which responsibilities they would feel fit to perform. Instead of making assumptions or taking their doctor's advice verbatim, make sure you truly listen to the employee's concerns and prepare them for exactly what will happen when they do return.
It is acceptable to reward partial shifts with partial pay, but if you go this route, make sure your employees are aware that they will only be compensated for the hours they work upon their return. Also, before the return actually takes place, employers should check in one last time to make sure their employees are still on board with coming back to work.
Of course, every employee's absence happens under different circumstances, so it is not possible to prescribe phased returns for every single long-term absence. In some cases, there are simply too many extra risks involved to allow an employee to return before they are 100 percent ready to work again. For example, illness may have increased their likelihood of getting injured on the job. If it is a physically demanding job, they need to wait until their body is fully healed in order to avoid a workplace accident.
Other drawbacks are interpersonal. For example, employees may not want to divulge embarrassing details about their physical or mental condition, or they may divulge too many details, crossing a line into unprofessional behavior. When employers want to keep track of their employees' health status, they must learn how to practice sensitivity and restraint while managing this communication.
During the process of the phased return, employers must also use time and resources to check in with the employee and adjust their new duties gradually. Abrupt returns do not require this back-and-forth; employers simply expect employees to resume the schedule and duties they previously held. Some employers may shy away from phased returns because they do not want – or cannot afford – the added responsibility of soliciting feedback and personalizing a detailed strategy.
Only you can decide if a phased return to work is the right option for your company. Should your employees wait until they are fully healed to start working again, or is it more important to keep them connected to their colleagues and give them time to acclimate? Every situation is unique, so no matter what policy you decide to enact, be prepared to practice flexibility as you work to accommodate each employee's needs and your business goals.