Chronic Communication at Work: Your Colleague Is Returning From Leave of Absence

I often speak with clients who are returning from work after a leave of absence, and even wrote an article awhile back addressing this issue.  It’s not an easy process to find your way back into the workplace after being on leave, whether for medical or mental health reasons.

However, a client recently expressed concern about how to welcome back a colleague who has been out on leave.  They weren’t sure what to say, what questions might be appropriate or inappropriate.  Or whether they should try to pretend the leave didn’t happen.  Basically, is this an elephant in the room that needs to be left unattended, or should it be identified and discussed?  And let’s face it, it’s hard not to be curious as well as concerned.

So let’s face it.  While it’s hard to reenter the workforce for someone who has been on leave, it is also complicated for colleagues.  In light of this, here are some ideas to help you in effectively welcoming your colleague back to work after being out on leave of absence.


First, Let’s Look at How Your Colleague May Be Feeling

 If you have ever been out on leave, you know how it’s like when you return to work.  If you haven’t, you might imagine how difficult this might be.  Here’s a summary of how individuals returning from leave are feeling:

“I don’t want to be judged.”  All too often, taking a leave of absence is viewed as a sign of weakness, of not being able to handle the pressure of the job.  This is especially true of colleagues who have been out on mental health leave.  Consequently, those returning from leave often fear they are being talked about and unfairly judged.

“I hope no one resents me.”  Even if this hasn’t been directly communicated, a colleague taking a leave knows that their tasks and projects needed to be shifted around, and that most likely this increased the workload for some or all of their team members.  They fear being resented as a result.  And they may be watching for signs of resentment from their team members.

“I need to feel like I am still needed and valued.”  We all need to feel validated, that’s just human nature.  In the workplace, that means being someone that other team members rely upon.  Colleagues who have been on the bench for a period of time need to feel needed and valued by other team members.  Appreciated.  Missed.  Validated.  Along with concerns that their redistributed tasks may not be returning to them.

“I want to feel productive.”  Work is good therapy.  Feeling productive picks up our mood, enhances our self-confidence, helps us feel a bond with our team members.  Returning colleagues want an opportunity to take an active role at work, even if modifications are necessary.

“I don’t want to be questioned.”  This is a big one.  Out of curiosity, it is all too easy to ask questions that can be painful, intrusive, embarrassing, humiliating for a colleague who has taken a leave of absence.  They fear being placed in the position of being expected to answer questions they don’t feel comfortable answering.  Again, the fear of being exposed and judged.

An important all-encompassing word: hope.  Colleagues returning to the workplace have a lot of hope for a transition back that is as smooth as possible, for themselves and for their colleagues.


Second, Let’s Consider How Your Are Feeling

Most likely, you have a lot of questions about your colleague’s leave and how to approach them, how to bring them back into the day-to-day work flow of your team.  And you may have some lingering feelings about their leave of absence and how you were impacted.  Here are some of the questions teammates frequent have:

“I wonder why they were on leave?”  Again, human nature.  Of course, you may be curious about why your colleague was on leave.  You may know the reason and you may not.  Hmmm…

“How do I include them when we learned how to get by without them?”  It may be clear how to get your returning from leave colleague involved in projects, and it may not.

“Can they offload me of their work I’ve had to do?”  You may be feeling a little resentful as you look back at the disruption, as well as additional work, that your colleague’s leave absence caused for you, and wondering when you can shift it back to them.  Maybe feeling a little impatient.

 “What’s everybody else think was the reason they went on leave?”  This topic may have already come up with your colleagues, and it may be coming up again.  Hearing any rumblings?

“If they are still fragile, what should I be expecting?”  Your colleague may not appear to be on their A game, physically or emotionally, or both.  You may be uncertain as to how to interact with them as well as, again, their ability to fully contribute.

Also notice a recurring punctuation here: a question mark.  It’s only human nature to have a lot of questions about a colleague who is returning from leave.  Along with a lot of feelings.


Here’s How To Welcome Your Colleague Back

 So, how do you handle your colleague’s return from leave, as an individual and as a team?

As discussed, colleagues returning to the workplace are coming with hope that they can find their groove as workers and find their groove as a team member.  And the flip side: worry that they won’t.  The colleagues they are returning to have a lot of questions, ranging from curiosity about the reason for the leave to what they should expect from their returning colleague.

Here are some ideas to help you, as a colleague, to welcome back a colleague who has been out on leave:

Don’t hesitate to offer a welcome back greeting.  So often, clients who are returning to the workplace talk about having the sense that their colleagues, out of an apparent fear of saying the wrong thing, don’t say anything at all.  They feel their colleagues are pretending that they haven’t been absent from the workplace, or even seem to avoid them.  Everybody knows this colleague was out on leave.  Don’t leave this an elephant in the room.  How about taking the first step and welcoming them back?  It’s as simple as “Great so see you again.  Welcome back on the team.”  And maybe even, “We missed you.”

Hold the why questions.  It is only human nature to wonder why a colleague was out on leave of absence.  Especially if they return with changes in appearance, ability, or behavior.  However, keep in mind that your colleague may be feeling self-conscious, exposed, vulnerable.  As much as you want to know, this is your colleague’s information to share – as much, or as little, as they feel necessary.  They are in control here.  And questions, however well meaning, can feel intrusive and judgmental.

Ask the how questions.  Here’s one to start with: “Anything I can help you with?”  Your colleague may need an update on new procedures or technologies implemented while they were absent.  They may have questions about changes in roles that may have occurred, especially as this impacts their own roles.  Leaders and other team members can greatly benefit a returning colleague by offering to answer questions or to provide some training, or to be a resource in the future as questions arise.  Keep in mind that your returning colleague may be hesitant to burden you with questions, especially if they feel their leave of absence may also have burdened their teammates.  `

Offer support.  And support starts with being willing to listen.  The greatest way to honor another person is to listen with an open mind.  You don’t have to fix anything, you don’t have to offer any profound wisdom.  Just listen.  Someone going through a potential difficult or stressful situation, like returning to work after a medical or mental health leave, can sure appreciate having a listening ear.  Open the door with a simple invitation: “I’m here for you.  If I can help you in any way, let me know.  Or if you just want to talk, then I am here to listen.”

Make space.  Be aware that your colleague returning from leave may have some challenges in readjusting to work.  If they have been out for a medical reason, they may continue to have some physical challenges that may impact their ability to dive back into the flow.  A colleague who has been out for mental health reasons may need some additional time to feel comfortable with day-to-day interactions.  Some time to ease back into the worker role.  Treatment and medication regimens can affect the speed of fully returning to full capacity at work.  Also keep in mind that your colleague may be changed by their medical or mental health condition, at least temporarily, in ways that may require some readjustment on your part.  As the saying goes, be open to a new normal.  Patience is still a virtue.  So is human compassion.

Engage.  As discussed previously, a returning colleague is concerned that the team has moved on without them, and their involvement is no longer needed.  Find ways to help your returning colleague feel engaged.  Ask their opinion.  Request that they take a look at something.  Invite them to a meeting they might contribute to.  Don’t leave them in a corner to figure out where to get involved.  Being a team member means active engagement with other team members.  When other team members reach out to us, we feel valued.

Socialize.  Ask your returning colleague to have coffee with you.  Consider having a team lunch in their honor.  Stop by and have a quick conversation.  This is a great way to let them know you value their presence and want to reconnect on a personal, human level.

Be self-aware.  Starting with your own feelings about your colleague’s leave.  Ask yourself: How did my colleague’s leave directly impact me?  For example, did their leave result in you having an expanded workload, maybe a few of your least favorite tasks?  On the other hand, did their leave provided you with an opportunity for more visibility, or a stretch that expanded your skills?  If your colleague was also your leader, did you feel lost while they were away?  Any other ways you were impacted?  It’s only human to have various, even conflicting, emotions about your colleague’s return.  Some positive, some not so positive.  Don’t judge yourself for having human reactions.  However, having said that, you may need to do some work on yourself to treat your colleague fairly, and to make a place for them on the team.

Avoid the urge to gossip.  One more time.  Human nature.  It would not be surprising if some conversations came up with your teammates when your colleague first went out on leave, especially if you weren’t informed why.  These conversations may be coming up again now that your colleague is back.  If the gossip mill hits full steam, misinformation and assumptions can result.  This can impact team morale as well as cause emotional damage to your returning colleague.  Watch out for side conversations.

If you need guidance, speak with your leader.  You may have had a team meeting in advance of your colleague’s return to discuss how to best integrate them back into the daily routine.  Or you may have had this meeting when they first returned.  So this may all be clear to you.  But if not, it may be helpful to approach you leader and ask for their guidance.


Bottom Line: Put Out the Welcome Mat

Getting back to work after being out on leave brings up all kinds of feelings, for the returning colleague and for their team members.  It may take some time to get into a groove with each other.  The best way to start moving toward finding that groove is to enthusiastically welcome your returning teammate, and to support them in finding their rhythm.  This benefits them, and it benefits the team.

You.  Your colleague.  Your team.  Compassion.  Patience.  Teamwork.  We’re all in this together!