How To Return To Work After Taking Time Off
Have you ever had to take time off of work for health reasons, or maybe family obligations? Perhaps you know somebody who has, or maybe you are managing somebody who’s going through this right now.
Well, this could happen to any one of us at any time; nobody is immune.
And the thing is, managing that kind of phased return back to work isn’t always so simple.
- You may feel that you can’t carry your own weight and that’s troubling to you.
- You may be worried that your colleagues might be judging you.
- Or maybe you’re concerned that you’re missing opportunities.
- If you’re an achiever, you’re probably feeling super frustrated that you can’t push yourself as hard as you always have, that you can’t operate at 120%, that you can’t say ‘yes’ to every project.
Well, if you’re feeling this way and managing your return back to work, it’s perfectly normal. There are lots of things you can be doing, but I want to share with you six that I think can be particularly helpful.
1. Job #1 is your health or family obligation
Understand that your job number one is to focus on your health, or your family obligation, whatever that is. Only you can make that a priority, only you can make that your focus.
Remember that what’s really important at this stage is to just make a sustainable recovery if you’re returning from an illness, or to set up a sustainable situation at home.
2. Set up the deal with your boss
You want to be setting up your deal with your boss upfront. What I mean by that is you want to have a conversation with your boss and talk about how you want to phase back in. They’re going to be guided by what you want and what you’re capable of, so you can take some leadership in this regard.
At the same time, you want to make sure you agree some check-in points. Arrange to have meetings or conversations that happen on a regular basis. That makes it normal to talk to your boss about how you’re feeling and where things stand, whether that’s at the end of every week, at the end of every month, and so forth.
3. Figure out what you want to communicate
Decide for yourself what the message is that you want to give to people at work. What do you want to tell your boss, what do you want to tell your colleagues, and what do you want to tell your clients?
It might be the same message for everyone. You might feel comfortable with the same level of transparency with everybody, which makes your life so much simpler because when you tell people what the facts of the situation are, they stop being so curious and can go on with their lives and go about their own business.
But if, for whatever reason, you don’t feel that way then make sure you find a small group of people that you can be totally transparent with. I’m not talking about TMI (Too Much Information) here, but just what the situation really is because you’re going to need their support. Ideally that small group would include your boss, maybe one or two very, very close colleagues, and/or your friends and family.
Then, decide what you’re comfortable with saying to everybody else. But don’t leave them wondering and guessing because then that’s when things get really messy.
4. Be compassionate with yourself
Cut yourself some slack. Be realistic about what you actually can do.
In my own case, I fractured a vertebra in a car accident and had to lie in bed for three months. When I started back to work, I could only spend an hour sitting up at first, then an hour and a half, and then two hours.
So just be realistic about what it is you can do and don’t strain beyond that. And make sure you factor in commuting time too into how much time and energy you have!
5. Don’t worry about what others are thinking
I know, that’s really, really hard. But that goes back to item number one which is: your number one job is to focus on getting better or setting up the situation so that it’s better.
Even if people are thinking about you all the time (which, by the way, they’re not because everybody’s got their own stuff to worry about), but even if they are spending every waking moment thinking about you and your situation, then you can rest assured that the reputation you’ve always had can carry you through a long way.
We all know how hard it is to change a first impression and when that impression is already really good, then that’s going to carry you on. So don’t worry about what other people are thinking.
6. Focus on the quality, not the quantity
When you’re at work, focus on the quality of your work and not the quantity. On a practical basis, when you go into the office or wherever it is you’re doing your work, just decide: what is the one thing you’re going to focus on getting done that day, or maybe two things, or at most three things?
Once you’ve identified those one, two or three things, then you can get those done well and feel really good about yourself.
So, those are six things that you can do to ease your way back into work after a long absence. Here they are again, in brief:
- Job #1 is your health or family obligation
- Set up the deal with your boss
- Figure out what you want to communicate
- Be compassionate with yourself
- Don’t worry about what others are thinking
- Focus on the quality, not the quantity
Now, I want to ask you: What challenges have you faced in your return to work?
Scroll down and leave a comment so that we can all help out.
Figuring out going back to work after my second child was born, and when she was 2 months old my then 2.5 year old being diagnosed with a rare cancer which meant rapidly relocating from Asia to London, took some time to take my head around. I loved working in M&A and the challenges that came with it – but my priorities had to shift and recognise I had a lot to deal with personally. For me, it was important I took some me time to really think things though, and to be open minded. A coach (and I was sceptical at first!) really helped me to think through my priorities and needs. I’m now back at work full time, after just over a year’s maternity/moving/dealing break – in a role I never would have thought of before but it’s broadening my experience and the whole situation has shown me the limits of my resilience (a good thing – I know my priorities and boundaries much better) and how human most senior people in business are. My attitude is now definitely one of enjoy work and learn from it whatever it throws at you – there’s more to life than hours in the office.
Thank you for sharing your experience, SJT. I hope all is well with you and your family now.
It sounds like you had a tough set of situations that you handled well, supported by people around you including those very human senior people and your coach. No one handles these things alone, yet it does come down to the things you pointed out: taking the time to think things through, being open minded, getting clear on the priority, and learning your boundaries.
So great to hear your conclusion from it all – may we all join you in being able to enjoy, learn and live a full life!
This happened to one of my friends: when she left for maternity leave, she had to transfer her clients/accounts to a couple of (male) colleagues. Now she is back but her colleagues don’t want to give her the accounts back, and her boss is not precisely supportive (he is actually mostly ignoring the issue). The colleagues claim that the clients feel now comfortable with them. So now she has to go looking for new clients/accounts.
Thanks for sharing this example. What a difficult situation for your friend – while she’s not likely to be alone in this experience, that doesn’t make it any better.
Without knowing the details of the type of business, company’s location, its policies, the length of the leave, and what was agreed beforehand, it’s hard to advise on specifics.
However, at a minimum, this does underscore the importance of setting up your deal upfront, and getting it in writing.
PS – In case it’s helpful, I also came across this comprehensive checklist for Type A Professionals who are planning for maternity leave: https://fairygodboss.com/career-topics/the-office-maternity-leave-checklist-for-the-type-a-professional While it’s written for people in the US, it seems like a very sensible list that could be broadly applicable.
May, you are fortunate that you could return to work. Seven years ago, after 40 years as a successful academic faculty member and administrator, I had a traumatic brain episode (a benign tumor imploded due to the explosion of a blood vessel). The TBI occurred in my last scheduled cabinet meeting as provost at my fourth institution prior to my departure to begin service as Sr. VPAA and CAO at a fifth institution. Due to the medical problems, I knew I could not serve effectively as CAO, so I asked to be release from my commitment. The new institution reluctantly agreed.
Since the TBI, it has been one medical problem after another. Although I was fast approaching normal retirement age, I was far from ready to retire. Right up to the time of the TBI, I still spent 10 hours a week in the gym playing somewhat competitive basketball. Since the TBI, I find myself dealing with epilepsy, sensory dsyfunctions, chronic fatigue, a mild case of aphasia, and a change in thinking patterns from verbal thinking to visual thinking. With my current medical history, no one will hire me. Therefore, I attempted to set up a consulting/coaching firm. However, since the aphasia exhibits itself more in the auditory realm, I have more trouble dealing with conversations and discussions, than the written word. Since my thinking is now more visually based, I find myself having to translate any exchange between words and pictures. It slows communication down to a crawl. Even with 40 years of great contacts built up in the academic world, my communication difficulties have prevent the consulting/coaching practice from getting off the ground.
Since I want to work and I want to make a difference in higher education, and I don’t want to “roll up in a big ball and die,” I have fallen back on the idea of writing about education. The major difficulty that I have faced in this venture is that I no longer have a “platform from which to speak.” There are thousands of unemployed and retired educators. They are not appreciated in the public arena.
People definitely want solutions to the problems of education. However, what can some one no longer active in the field offer? At this point, since publishers are having trouble selling “real” books, I have settled into working on several manuscripts and hope to find a break out book that I will most likely have to self-publish. It would be easier if I had a job, and could work it.
I’m sorry to hear of your travails. It sounds like you have a huge amount to offer given your vast experience. You absolutely must not “roll up in a big ball and die”!
I agree that platform is key. The good news is that these days, you can create your own platform by blogging (which you are doing) as well as self publishing (which can be a great way forward, depending on your goals). I can immediately see at least two options for possible exploration (forgive me if you’ve tried them all already!):
1. Find organizations that are already advocating for change in higher ed and offer to blog for them. These groups always need great content, and you not only have ideas but can also write. Prolifically, even! And I wrote “organizations” in the plural version because it’s much more energizing to have multiple lines in the water rather than waiting for that one organization to come back to you.
2. Start blogging in a more focused way that reaches a particular audience you want to serve. Maybe it’s a blog for academic administrators (School directors, department chairs, deans, etc.) on the issues that come up for them and how to handle them well. As you know, that group gets very little in the way of training or support and could sure use your wisdom. You could leverage your contacts to spread the word about this free resource. Then, once you’ve built up a following, you can start to offer them additional levels of service or products for a fee (e.g., a manual on how to nail your first 90 days as a dean, or other super useful content). (By the way, you will need to add a “Subscribe” button to your website so you can collect people’s names and email addresses in exchange for your free content and advice – any web designer will know how to do this, or perhaps you know some students who would help you).
In addition, you could start familiarizing yourself with how the publishing world has truly moved on – you are right, the big publishers are in difficulties from a business model perspective. By identifying your audience, serving them by blogging, and building your list of followers (readers), you would be pursuing the best path to both self-publishing and to attracting a traditional publisher. Publishers all want to know that you can sell books, which means having your own list. And this type of blogging is also the best way to discover what that audience wants, and giving it to them.
And if you’re interested in motivation and a new way of looking at things as you create your own platform, I find Seth Godin‘s blog and books, especially Tribes, and The Icarus Deception, to be a great way to get out of the traditional mindset and into the new mindset.
Hope that helps. I am rooting for you! Please let me know how you get on.
And keep going!
PS – I just read your blog post on Why Organizations Need a Chief Eleemosynary Officer It’s indeed what we need, and that leaves me wondering why most of us have never heard of the term “eleemosynary”?!