One of the things that we Human Resources managers often find ourselves doing is advising employees and managers on a myriad of work transitions; from transitioning into or out of a new management role, transitioning into the company as a new hire, or even transitioning out of the company as a recently laid-off employee. But one of the more challenging transitions to make concerns the employee returning to work after an extended absence. Sometimes the absence is a short-length one, like a maternity leave of two to three months, and sometimes the absence is a longer-term one, as with someone returning from a 6 or 12-month sabbatical. No matter how long the length of the absence from work, the returning employee will be faced with a long list of challenges. In light of this fact, what are some of the most critical things to remember in order to achieve a smooth transition back to work?
When I returned to my property and facilities management role after my first maternity leave some years ago, it was a rainy day. The rain fell heavier as the day wore on, and 36 hours later, we had experienced what many would later declare a 500-year rain storm. On that first day back at work, just as I had been working to keep myself from over-worrying about my 4-month old at home with the nanny, the property I was responsible for managing was leaking just about everywhere. The sump pumps were becoming overwhelmed, the French drains in the basement were threatening to overflow, and electrical conduit in underground systems were in danger of becoming so waterlogged that a whole-facility shutdown was not out of the realm of possibility. The corporate data center, nearly 1000 employees, and critical operations of a global corporate headquarters were calling out to me – what are you going to do about this!?! My answer that day, and my advice for anyone I counsel about returning to work, is breathe. Breathe not just for zen-inducing, mindfulness-creating peace, but B.R.E.A.T.H.E.
When you return from work after a leave of absence, remember to B.R.E.A.T.H.E.
B is for… Believing in you, and in all the skills and abilities that drew you to the job in the first place. Your passions and capabilities and strengths will be the very things that help you to remember why you’re good at what you do, and why it was even worth it to come back to the job at all.
R is for… Remembering everything you used to love (or, not hate so much) about the job before you left for parental leave or a sabbatical or that juicy executive-on-loan volunteer stint. Coming back to work, refreshed from the distraction that long absences often provide can often help you see with clarity the essence of what you liked or loved about the job in the first place.
E is for… Exhaling and inhaling and exhaling again. It’s true that day 1 or even day 21 back on the job may very well be anxiety-producing and create all sorts of challenges related to renewing work relationships, getting reintroduced to key projects, and getting caught up on everything that went on while you were out. But, if you give yourself some time to get reacquainted with the job and your boss and co-workers, each day may bring a little bit more ease with which you can get your job done.
A is for… Adding some challenge. One of the great things about returning to work after an absence is the opportunity for invention and reinvention. After being away for some period of time longer than a vacation, returning to work can be an excellent entrée to making changes in your work style, communication approach with people, and other work habits. A new challenge could come in the form of giving yourself some new parameters on working hours or how much travel you’re willing to do. Or, a new challenge upon returning to work could also include a goal to expand your job skills into a new area. Not only can switching things around a bit simply make the job more fun, but it can also make the job feel more worthwhile if you know you’re challenging yourself to work differently.
T is for… Temperance, and not the Ladies Temperance Society kind, either. Returning to work after a long absence can promote opportunities for temperance (read, self-restraint) against any of those things you used to do at work that you knew you shouldn’t have, were either unproductive, or just a bad habit. Coming back to work can be a chance to start anew, by avoiding those things you used to do and want to stop. Whether it’s surfing the internet at work, getting too involved in water-cooler banter, or secretly desiring a married co-worker, coming back to work can be a good time to declare you’ll lay those kinds of distractions by the wayside.
H is for… Having fun. Just because your time away from the job provided what was probably a well-needed break from your routine, that doesn’t mean that when you return to work, you should travail without the same kinds of breaks and time off that everyone else has. Why? Because chances are when you were out of the office, you weren’t spending all day reading Keats, taking long naps and walking through fields of daisies. You were probably working in some kind of capacity, at least as hard as or maybe even harder than you were when you were coming to the office everyday. So, when you return to work, take an occasional break and seek to create a healthy balance of work and play. For example, take a 5-minute walk outside after lunch, or catch up with office friends over coffee. Even consider taking a vacation day if you have some accrued time. Just because you were out of the office for a few or several months, doesn’t mean you should feel compelled to overwork yourself to an unhealthy place once you’re back in the office.
E is for… Economy. Not in the sense of the depressing, unprecedented economy we’re living in these days. Rather, economy in the adjective kind of sense. When you return to work after an absence, utilize your time and resources economically and efficiently. Don’t try too hard to insert yourself back into your old work relationships, but instead let that process evolve over time by giving yourself and your co-workers time to adjust to your being back in the office. Don’t push yourself to make things as they were so that the job feels like it did before you left. Maybe your absence has created opportunities for the job to be even better than it was before. And lastly, don’t B.R.E.A.T.H.E. or breathe too hastily. A refreshing deep breath is always better than hyperventilating in the face of all the inevitable return-to-work challenges.
by Melanie Haniph