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The Great-West Life Assurance Company, London Life Insurance Company and The Canada Life Assurance Company have become one company – The Canada Life Assurance Company. Discover the new Canada Life

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Supporting an employee’s return to work after a medical leave

Key takeaways

  • A safe and timely return to work benefits the employee and their family by enhancing recovery. Employees face common challenges when returning to work that you can support them to overcome.
  • The impact on your business of supporting early and timely return-to-work plans.

Work is an essential part of health and well-being

Prolonged absence from an employee’s normal roles, including absence from the workplace, isn’t good for a person’s mental, physical and social well-being | PDF 411kbOpens a new website in a new window

After a leave of absence for a medical issue, returning to their usual activities, including work, is essential for an employee’s full recovery.

When an employee is away from work for medical reasons, they’ll gradually get better with rest and proper medical care. However, there comes a point when they’ll need to improve their function, specifically in their work environment and job duties. 

The return-to-work phase is part of the treatment and rehabilitation process. 

How the return to work involves the workplace

An employee on leave who comes back to work with some limitations will likely need an adjustment period. The length of this adjustment period depends on the employee’s medical recovery, their resilience and the support they get from their care providers, their loved ones and you.

An example

Let’s look at Alex’s situation. Alex (he/him) is an administrative assistant in a pharmaceutical distribution company who is currently away from work on disability leave. At work, Alex needs to organize and schedule appointments, plan meetings, write and send emails and letters, order office supplies, and create and submit expense reports. Alex needs to do all of this while answering phone calls.

Alex’s medical condition has been affecting his energy level and concentration. Alex is now feeling somewhat better. To prepare for a return to work, Alex’s health care provider has suggested he starts reading again, doing some basic Internet searches and paying bills at home. So far this has gone well. 

Now the time has come to start doing some of his work duties in a limited capacity. This will help Alex build stamina and concentration. Alex can start with just one task at a time at a slower pace and gradually increase to eventually return to multi-tasking and full duties.

The sooner the employer can accommodate Alex in modified duties, the sooner Alex will be able to make progress. Alex’s employer has agreed to meet with Alex to discuss what he can do and how they can accommodate him. 

Challenges an employee may face when returning to work

Think about your last vacation. If you were away for any length of time, it may have been difficult for you to get back into things. Maybe you felt disconnected on the first few days. Maybe changes happened while you were away and you needed to catch up. 

It may have been hard to sort through your emails and remember what happened just before you left. You could even have missed an important announcement or have new colleagues. All this can happen within a couple of weeks. 

Now imagine if you had been away for several weeks or even months, dealing with health issues and other related problems. 

Here are some common challenges an employee may face when returning to work and ways you can support them.

Changes at home 

When someone is away from work, they fall into a different routine, get new habits and maybe lose habits that allowed them to be more efficient.

  • Give the employee time to adjust to their new reality.
  • Show some compassion if, for instance, they come to work a few minutes late.
  • Ask them what you can do to help them adjust and brainstorm solutions with them.

Changes to mental state

Mental health is a state of mental well-beingOpens a new website in a new window that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. 

Being away from work can affect one’s sense of identity and productiveness, which sometimes results in a lower than usual self-esteem. Many workers will have doubts about their capacity to do their job when they return. 

Reassure them by telling them you understand it may take time for them to be fully functional. Be patient with your expectations.

Feelings of losing control over one’s life

While on leave, the employee may feel they have little power or control over their situation. Their doctor and other health care providers make decisions about their care, and their insurer makes decisions about their benefits and claim. 

To help them feel like they have control again, involve the employee as much as possible in planning their return to work. Ask them what they think they’re capable of doing and arrange for them to let you know about their progress often.

Anxiety being around others

Being on leave often means being more isolated than usual. It may be hard to be surrounded with people again. On top of that, employees returning to work often worry about their colleagues’ impression of them. They may feel like they let them down. They may also worry about answering questions about the reason for their absence. 

Before the return to work:

  • You can invite the employee to come for a brief meeting with their team or to attend a social gathering, if they feel ready.
  • Encourage team members to warmly welcome the employee and not to pry in their personal life. Your own behaviour will influence your team.
  • Adopt an open and empathetic behaviour toward the employee and use positive language when referring to their future with the company.

Medical issues

The employee will likely have ongoing medical issues they need to attend to. They may also suffer from physical pain, mood instability and anxiety. 

Discuss with them how they need to be accommodated. For example, you can talk about things like timing and length of breaks they need, the timing of medical appointments and the time of day best suited for them to accomplish more difficult tasks. 

Physical and mental stamina

The employee may be deconditioned because they haven’t used their body and mind in the same way as they would at work. They’ll often need to gradually increase their work hours and/or the job demands as they build back the strength and stamina they need to work. 

Work collaboratively with the employee, their health care provider and the disability management professionals to build a graduated return-to-work plan when necessary. 

Changes to the workplace

Many changes may have occurred while the employee was away. Maybe there are new processes or tools they’ll need to become familiar with. 

Look back on the period they were away and identify any training gaps. Make a training plan and present it to them. Think about changes that occurred in the weeks or months before they left. Ask them if they think they need refresher training or mentoring to be able to do their job. 

When you accommodate an employee in a safe, timely and early return to work, you:

  • Show your employee and their colleagues you value their contribution.
  • Promote engagement at work for all your workforce.
  • Benefit from having an experienced employee back earlier.
  • Reduce the need to hire and train for a replacement.

An employee returning to work from a medical leave of absence may not be as productive as their former self but by supporting them, you’re providing them with the opportunity to recover fully. Eventually, that will help your business.

What's next?

The information provided is accurate to the best of our knowledge as of the date of publication, but rules and interpretations may change. 

This information is general in nature, and is intended for informational purposes only. For specific situations you should consult the appropriate legal, accounting or tax advisor.

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