How to help those recovering from illness settle back into work

Every manager hopes to be blessed with a fit and healthy workforce, but sooner or later they will find someone on the payroll gets seriously ill.

From those who have suffered lifelong chronic conditions to people who appear fit and well only to suffer an accident or be struck down by a sudden infection, there are many ways in which bosses could find themselves having to deal with longer-term sickness.

A long time off will not only mean that staff members have missed more of what is going on, but the process of settling back in might be difficult for a range of reasons.

For some, this may be psychological, as a long illness may be traumatising, especially if it has been something life-threatening like cancer. That can have a major impact on how a person thinks and feels about life and work, so it is important to ensure they are given plenty of space to adjust to life back at work gradually.

Equally, there may be physical effects to consider. Some may return to work while not fully recovered, thus being limited in their capacities, at least to start with. Others may have a permanent disability, for example if they have had to have a limb amputated. Managers will need to know their legal obligations to accommodate the disabled, and also be aware that such physical changes may have a psychological impact themselves.

The most practical way to do this is to meet with the returning staff member to plan a phased reintegration to work, so they know they are being taken care of, and that the pace of their return is appropriate. After they have been back a short time, it is wise to meet them again, assess progress, and make adjustments if necessary.

It is important to realise that all this will usually be well worth the time and effort taken. Firstly, on a purely human level the provision of moral and practical support could prove invaluable to someone who may be feeling fragile and isolated after a very difficult time in their life. It can also boost their loyalty to their employers.

Perhaps some firms can learn from how the armed forces deal with returns to work after serious illness or injury. In a recent speech, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Soldiers have an 85 per cent return-to-work rate after a serious injury, and they obviously have some very serious injuries. The equivalent rate for civilians is only 35 per cent.

“The reason why the military is better at getting people back to work is because they are more engaged in their workers’ recovery at every stage of the process.

Civilian employers must do the same. Employers have a responsibility to help improve the health of their staff and the nation.”

Mr Hancock cited the example of how employers in the Netherlands deal with the issue. Dutch employers, he noted, are legally obliged to “demonstrate due diligence” in their rehabilitation of staff into the workplace.

That comment may hint at future legislation, but wise employers need not wait for law changes to force them to take good care of returning staff.

Instead, by being willing to accommodate the needs of returning staff, to limit their workloads until they are ready to take on full duties and by making provisions for any specific new needs they may have, employers can do plenty in the here and now to make returning to work easier.


Image courtesy of iStock/vadimguzhva


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