How to help support an employee's return to work

For employees that need to take time away from work, the return to work experience can be just as important as the leave itself. Learn more from Jen Small, Voya’s leader of Absence and Statutory products.

Most of us have had colleagues that needed time away from work to recover from an injury or surgery, to care for a family member, or to meet another health-related need. Many of us may also be familiar with anxiously awaiting that colleague’s return—whether it’s to collaborate on projects again, or maybe even lighten the workload. 

A smooth return is important, however. Just ask Jen Small, Voya’s leader of Absence and Statutory products, and go-to resource for questions related to employee leave. Small took her own leave of absence recently, which put her in the shoes of the employees served by the team.

“When I returned to work, I hadn’t expected that I would have to physically recondition, and didn't fully know what would be required to get caught up at work,” Small said. “My mindset had been completely on recovering. Returning to work is different.”

The need for an effective transition supported by recent research by the Voya team. In interviews with 30 employees who had recently experienced a leave,1 they uncovered that not knowing what to expect when they returned to the office was a significant stressor—and that eliminating uncertainty around the return to work could improve their overall perception of the experience, as well as satisfaction with their employer.  

With that in mind, here are some suggestions from Small to help employers provide support during a return, from her own experience.

1.    Set reasonable expectations

“When a person returns to work, the misconception is that they’re rested and ready to jump back in,” Small said. “That’s not always the case. No matter what the circumstances were around the leave, there can be a period of re-adjustment when the employee returns.” 

If the manager or employer can set an expectation that the employee will need time to adjust, and can communicate that expectation with teammates and/or other departments as the employee returns, that will help. “Manager support is one of the most critical elements of a return to work,” Small said.

2.    Check on fitness-for-duty requirements

For some occupations, particularly ones that involve liability and risk—such as employees who operate heavy machinery—a medical certification may be required. “This will depend on the type of employer, but is important to check,” Small said. “If it’s part of the return to work transition, this will need to be completed before the employee can return to work.”

3.    Meet one-on-one to create a transition plan

On that first day back at work, the employee and their manager or HR leader should meet to map out what the transition will look like. “As an employee on leave, you just don’t know what to expect until you return, and that can make planning ahead difficult,” Small said. “The manager needs to understand what’s going on with the employee. How are they feeling? What are they capable of?”

“While everyone is very excited for the employee to return, the manager needs to help drive what that means,” Small continued. “This includes getting them up to speed on what they missed when they were out, as well understanding how to transition work back to them in a way that is reasonable.”  

4.    Address any accommodations that may be needed

Depending on the circumstances surrounding the employee’s leave, there may be accommodations that the employer is required to meet. For example, if an employee has back surgery, they may require an accommodation like a sit-stand workstation, Small said. “If an employee mentions they need an accommodation for their return to work—even verbally—it may be a requirement for the employer to address.” Managers should refer to their employer handbook for guidance and apply this uniformly to all employees across the company, according to Small.

“The employer needs to evaluate this need to discern whether equipment needs to be purchased, or another type of accommodation needs to take place,” Small continued. “This could include reaching out to the doctor.” 

This could also apply in a stay-at-work situation, where an employee doesn’t go out on leave, Small said. “It’s important for managers to be aware of who to contact for more information related to accommodations within their organization.”

5.    Ensure that the employee’s pay and benefits are properly reinstated

Administrative details—such as reminding the employee to adjust their out-of-office message, or restart their 401(k) contributions—should also be checked as the employee returns to work. “Both the manager and the employee should be on top of reinstating pay and benefits,” Small said. “It’s a shared responsibility, and neither party should make assumptions. You may both need to report the employee’s return to work to make sure there isn’t a delay in payment.”

These are small details that managers may not know about, but that are critical, Small said. “It’s key to make sure the employee’s pay, benefits, and access are activated again.”

6.    Reconnect the employee with teammates and business partners

In addition to talking to their manager, it’s important for returning employees to reconnect with other team members. “This is especially important when it comes to the team that took on the work while the employee was out,” Small said. “Together, they need to figure out how to get that employee back to their normal duties.”

Additional points for the employee to cover with teammates or their manager include organizational changes, or required corporate trainings—all while taking care to ensure that they’re not overwhelming the employee as they come back. “It’s important for the employee to feel very valued throughout this process,” Small said. “It’s on the manager to drive that in collaboration with the employee.”

Find out how Voya supports employers and employees throughout the leave process, or visit or contact your Voya representative to learn more.  

Voya Leave Management services are provided in part by Disability RMS, Inc.

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1Voya Financial Proprietary Research conducted in October 2020; included 30 in depth interviews with individuals who had recently returned to work after experiencing a leave