6 tips to help managers support returners after a long absence

Few situations you’ll face as a people manager need more care than when a team member returns to work after a long absence. Returners often have complex needs, which might include ongoing mental health problems or learning to live with disability. Balancing the needs of the individual returner with those of the wider team and business is a tough proposition.

I spoke to Valerie Sherlock, a Service Delivery Manager in our Learning & Development team who recently helped a member of her team successfully come back to work after a difficult few months off. Whether you’re a people manager already or considering taking the leap soon, here are Valerie’s six tips to help you get it right.

1) Keep in touch

Open communication will be the single biggest factor in how well the person’s return to work goes. That includes while they’re absent, at a level they’re comfortable with. ‘We had some light contact as part of the absence management process,’ Valerie recalls. ‘When a person’s been signed off from work you need to respect that, but the person was happy to have some contact, so we kept in touch through occasional check-ins. Then as they were gearing up to come back we had open conversations about what would best facilitate a return to work for them.’

Keeping up that contact is just as important once the person’s returned as while they’re away. ‘It was really important we kept talking to each other, keeping the lines of communication open constantly. It was important to spread the contact and make sure they knew they could always speak to me when they needed to.’

2) Be their ‘safe space’

To get those conversations right, Valerie says there needs to be trust. ‘To me, being a line manager is about having a trusted relationship, and being a safe person for someone to open up to when they face challenges or struggles. I think it’s crucial that your team can trust you and know that you’ll support them through their problems. That’s especially important if they need to talk about their mental health, for example. We do a lot to promote mental health awareness in the bank and I think that’s starting to reap rewards because people do feel now that they can speak up. That helps people to open up early on, and means I can support them without it being concealed, or without it feeling like a really difficult conversation to have.’

3) Listen and empathise

One way Valerie has built that strength of trust with her team is by listening. ‘I’ve learned how important it is to really listen to what your team members are saying. You need to work to understand their needs, who they are as a person, and what their perspective is. You might not have experience of their circumstances or their point of view, and it’s really important to be empathetic of what someone’s going through. If you take that approach and you talk through what they need and how they feel about coming back to work, you can have some really good discussions about support and what’s feasible on both sides.’

4) Be realistic about what the person can do on their return

Sometimes a returner can pick up exactly where they were before their time off. But many will need to come back in a more controlled way. ‘You need to understand what success looks like for that person. What does their first day look like? What about their first week? Understanding their expectations means you can realign yours. For most people it will be important they don’t feel bombarded, or that they’ve come into a challenging situation.

‘It’s also key to be really realistic about what it takes for that person to be a successful returner, to feel supported and able to come back to the job that they enjoyed. For example, are there certain activities that would help to rebuild their confidence? Assigning them the type of tasks they’ve enjoyed previously can help someone feel comfortable while they get back on their feet.’

5) Be flexible

It may be important to plan how you’ll support a returner, but Valerie says you also need to remember to keep it fluid. ‘Be flexible and be prepared to ask if something is working well or not. Have regular catch ups to review what’s going well, and see what more support the person might need. That could be anything from working from home an extra day to having time to go to appointments to help their recovery.’

6) Remember that you need support too

As a people manager, your focus will rightly be on your returning team member’s needs. But Valerie says you shouldn’t forget your own needs, or those of the rest of your team. ‘Someone having a long term absence doesn’t only impact themselves, it also affects the team and the manager. My own line manager was really supportive with me, and we realigned our workstack and our team priorities together. It really helps to feel confident that your manager has your back when you’re making prioritisation calls.

‘The support from our Policy & Advice team in HR is also really important, along with the other great resources, guidance and frameworks we have in the bank. As the line manager you’re the one who has the relationship with the returner, and you know what will work with your team. I’ve always been supported to make the right decisions, and that’s crucial.’

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