How to Return to Work Well 

Employers hold the keys to supporting smooth returns back to the workplace 

How can employers help returning employees return to work well? This question, along with those exploring how exactly to entice those outside the workforce due to sickness, caring responsibilities or following retirement. Have been prime topics of discussion from Government members to business leaders, as workforce talent shortages continue placing pressure on HR and business owners alike.

With the UK reporting a staggering half a million people out of work due to long term sickness. In addition to 1.9 million women being economically inactive for caring reasons; be that caring for children, or elderly relatives. It’s safe to say that talent is readily available beyond the typically active candidate pools. Yet organisations are yet to identify the solution to plugging the gap between non working talent and the active workforce.

Where to start?

When embarking on the design of returner programmes, it is vital that senior teams are clear on the benefits of implementing such programs. The challenge then for employers is where to start? 

The important task of returning people to work well is not a one size fits all, or quick fix approach. But rather a series of programs of activity that are interdependent in the overarching people plan. 

In the face of a multitude of challenges to tackle during these challenging times. One solution worthy of exploring is to segment return to work activities, by return to work programs for maternity and paternity leave, programs for sickness absence and lastly programs for returning long term non workers. 

By using an approach that considers the needs and challenges of these three unique groups, in addition to the interconnecting themes that conjoin these programs, business leaders and HR are establishing best practices that will evolve with the needs of former and current employees.

Returning new parents to the workplace well

Returning new parents back to the workplace well can make all the difference when seeking to retain and support your employees at one of the most significant life changing periods they will experience.

Becoming a new parent for the first or any time, be that through natural conception, adoption or surrogacy is a time of great joy and celebration. But equally so, the complex changes that occur when becoming a parent for the first time can lead to additional challenges that are deserving of support and accommodation by employers. 

Safety and flexibility are core concerns for employees and represent key opportunities to support mental health during the on-site return | Source: McKinsey
Safety and flexibility are core concerns for employees and represent key opportunities to support mental health during the on-site return | Source: McKinsey

For mothers, returning to work from Maternity leave can follow anything from a period of four weeks, to one year and perhaps longer for those who exit the workforce to support their child’s early preschool years. 

The result on return, following time out for new mothers is that whilst their ambition for their work remains the same. The shift and expansion in priorities makes returning to work in a fashion that fails to accommodate this shift well, and can be detrimental to mental health, career prospects and home life. 

Returning to work after maternity leave can be tough

New Fathers are also faced with challenges of taking time out of the workplace for parenthood, in addition to the challenge of returning in a way that accommodates the shift in priorities and demands that naturally come with being a parent. 

Organisational leaders are therefore required to ensure that their policies for employees taking time out for parental duties from maternity leave, paternity leave, adoption leave and parental leave are fit for purpose. But these policies are also being tested to evaluate how well they’re accommodating employees’ needs throughout the parenting life-cycle. Including the phases of return to work. 

Evaluate the culture of your organisation and attitudes towards parents who have taken time out. Asking yourselves as business owners and leaders, how supportive and accommodating are my management team? Is there a culture of employees feeling empowered to take time out for caring responsibilities when they arise? What have the retention rates been for employees who have taken maternity, paternity or parental leave? 

Once the evaluation piece has been completed, it’s vital to consider how robust your return to work programs are. If you have an in-house HR team or are a member of HR, then how frequently are you revisiting your policies for parents? What feedback has been received from employees on how effective these are? What can be improved?

By adopting a continuous feedback and improvement practice. One that reviews and evaluates the effectiveness of the policies surrounding working parents in your organisation. You’re proactively enabling an effective culture for those who work in addition to having child raising responsibilities.

Returning long term absentees

For employees who have been outside of the organisation for an extended period relating to health and medical reasons typically these individuals are considered to be long term absentees.

The added complexity for organisations to work through is when employees are gearing up to return to the workplace. For the leaders of these organisations, particularly where there is no HR lead, there are vital things to consider when facilitating a return to work from a long term absence. 

Accept these are challenging times and change your lifestyle accordingly

Yet for many organisations, particularly early stage or smaller ventures, the challenge of supporting an employee who is out of the workforce for an extended period is oftentimes unprepared for and fraught with challenges. Smaller, more nimble organisations typically lack the internal infrastructure, resources and financial bandwidth to sustain long term absenteeism. 

However, from an employment law and ethical standpoint, supporting employees who are unable to work as a result of health or medical reasons is not only the right thing to do. But also the legal obligation required to be met. 

There are several steps that organisations can take in order to make the transition from long term absentee to fully embedded, returned to the organisation employee again. 

The management of a return to work for an employee following a long term absence typically follows a similar process for managers and people professionals. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have identified five key behaviours that are vital in adopting, in order to support the return of long term absent employees well. 

  1. Be consistent, fair and open 
  2. Respond to and handle people issues in a timely, fair and effective manner 
  3. Provide knowledge, guidance and clarity 
  4. Build sustainable relationships 
  5. Support development

Furthermore, when employees are returning to the workplace following an extended period of absence then it’s often the case that confidence can be waning. 

Be it that the employee spent time in a medical facility for a period of their absence, or based at home. For that individual, being at home all the time, whilst losing structures, routines and social connections in the workplace, may have contributed to this loss in confidence. 

Therefore it’s important that managers take the time needed to transition the employee back into workplace life at a pace that balances the demands of the organisation and the needs of the employee.

Bringing it all together

Sage HR’s people management software solution, handles a multitude of administrative and HR process burdens, easily and effectively. Freeing up a multitude of time for business owners and people professionals to focus on the increasingly important task of returning people back to work well. A 30 day free trial is on offer for new customers, so sign up today to find out more.



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Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.