Chronic Communication at Work: Returning to the Job After a Leave of Absence

Toni had to take some time off from her job due to some health issues related to her chronic condition. What she thought might be a leave of a week or so turned into closer to six weeks.


While she was on leave, Toni was encouraged by her boss, her doctor, and her family to take things easy and not be in touch with her workplace. They all thought that Toni needed to rest during this time and not worry about what was happening at work.


Toni was able to follow these recommendations, for the most part. Though she did occasionally check in with a co-worker she was especially close to.


When Toni’s doctor cleared her to return to work, she was jumping for joy. She missed the routine.  She missed her co-workers.  And she was also concerned about her finances.


With all of that anticipation, Toni’s expectations for her first day back at work were high. She assumed she would slide right back into her routine.  And she assumed her co-workers would be as happy to see her as she was them.


But Toni had a much different experience.


Some of her co-workers welcomed her back, but others seemed indifferent, if not angry at her. Her job duties has also changed.  Some of the tasks that she most enjoyed had been distributed among a couple of other co-workers who didn’t appear to be prepared to give them back.  One of her co-workers complained to her about how much harder she had needed to work while Toni was away.  And her boss touched base with her briefly and gave her a half-hearted welcome back, and then left her on her own to figure out where she was supposed to fit in.


“What am I supposed to do now?” Toni asked herself. Good question.  Here are some ideas to consider:


Don’t jump to conclusions.   Sure, things seem to have shifted in your absence, both in terms of your job tasks and how your co-workers relate to you.  But you’ve been gone awhile and your workplace had to adjust to your absence.  That doesn’t mean you are no longer a part of things.  Remember that our minds have a way of creating stories, usually based on the worst possible outcome. Don’t assume that you don’t have a role in your workplace anymore, or that your co-workers are lining up against you.  Be patient.


Take the first step.  Reach out to your co-workers.  Start with those you work most closely with, or with whom you have a personal relationship.  Ask how they’ve been doing.  Let them know how glad you are to see them again.  And thank them for any extra work they had to do while you were gone.  Also reach out to employees you may not have a relationship with, but know were impacted by your absence.  Reflect a positive attitude, even if what you seem to be getting back is anything but.


Give yourself time to ease back in.  You’ve been away awhile, and during this time you’ve had your own challenges, physical, emotional, or both.  While it’s only human to want to jump back in like you were never away, this may not be realistic.  If you spend a few days asking questions, reviewing, relearning, consider this a necessary part of the process of transitioning back to your worker role.


And give your co-workers time. In your absence, your co-workers have learned a new way of working together to get the work done.  They learned a new rhythm while you were gone, and now you’re basically asking them to make another workflow adjustment.  They may not be able to do this overnight.  Yet another reason to be patient.


Have a talk with your boss.  Ask for time to sit down and touch base on how things went in your absence.  This would be a time to update him/her on how you’re feeling and to reaffirm your intention to pick up where you left off.  However, if you are going to be need accommodations of any kind, temporarily or for the foreseeable future, this should also be discussed.  Your boss may also need some adjustment time, so this may need to be an ongoing conversation.


You and your job. Returning from work after a leave of absence may not go as smoothly as you hoped it would.  Project a positive attitude.  Be patient.  Take it one day at a time.