Returning to work after long-term absence

new mum returning to work

Article by Alaana Woods, Commercial Director, Bupa Health Clinics

If I am honest, I’ve never really known the importance of sickness policy/absence management. I know this is an odd thing to say for someone that has been selling wellbeing services for over 10 years.

The last few years have been tough for everyone, in which I’ve also had a lot of personal change, which led to a period of time off work. Work wasn’t the main reason, but it compounded issues that I hadn’t managed properly. To use euphemisms, I needed to get my head straight. If you have ever been in the same position you know it requires ‘work’. It required focus, and I couldn’t do that as well as my job. Something had to give.

One of my biggest issues was the stigma, not from my colleagues or the business, but the stigma I placed on myself. I talk about wellbeing every day and mental health is our fastest growing service. Whilst I knew I was not unique, I could not find the kindness I needed for myself. I worried. That was overwhelming.  But I was lucky, I had friends, family, colleagues, and an employer that supported me. Sadly, not everyone has this.

Now I’m phasing my return, I am so lucky to work for a company that understands mental health. It has been hugely supportive; I’m grateful to my team who all have stepped up. I can also now speak from experience that the role of a manager is key, thankfully mine has been amazing. They worked hard to understand what I needed and gave me the space and time so I could return to work energised and focused.  I know that I am returning stronger and I feel more excited about my career than I have in years. I also feel more committed and loyal to my manager and to my team.

I also ask what might have happened if I hadn’t had support, and I can genuinely say I don’t know if I would have returned. It could so easily have gone the other way; I would have been lost. Without support I would have left a role that I love and one that I am good at. We need to recognise that if we support our people when they need it most, they will come back stronger and they will work harder.

So, it is for these personal and professional reasons that I’m proud that Bupa has supported and contributed to the CIPD’s guides on returning to work after long-term absence for both HR teams and line managers.

I had a lot to learn and sadly it took my own experience to learn it. I hope that others can get to this point without lived experience.

I’ve outlined some key areas which all businesses should consider with returning people to work after long-term absence:

Role of line managers

The role of a line manager is probably the most important one. Line managers hold the closest relationships to the employee and a supportive relationship can foster better outcomes.

A line manager needs various skills to help their employee return to work. These include having empathetic conversations, which help to build and sustain the relationship, and providing knowledgeable guidance on possible return to work options, for example, phased returns.

Support from HR teams

Support from HR teams can help to ensure a fair and supported return to work and mitigate returning workers claiming unfair dismissal or discrimination. HR teams are also responsible for having and updating supporting absence management policies that are fair and can help retain an employee.

Knowing the guidelines

Information and support for HR teams, line managers and all employees can be hugely beneficial in making sure the right approach is in place for employees returning from long-term absence. It is crucial that everyone understands the proper guidance, legal advice and any policies and procedures that are in place. It’s also vital that support services are highlighted for medical support.

Access to services

Providing access to health and wellbeing services to employees can be hugely beneficial. Not only to help them stay well and in work, but to help employees while they’re out the office or during their return to work.

Services such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) can help with anything from mental health to financial support and physical health advice. Other services such as health insurance and health assessments can identify any conditions and provide medical treatment.

It’s also key that occupational health professionals are consulted to make sure employees are safe while in work and any risks that could result in work-related ill health are managed.

This pandemic has forced us to think differently, it has highlighted inequality, but it has also united us. It has reminded us how important having healthy, committed, and engaged employees is to business performance.

Our own research, Bupa’s Workplace Wellbeing Census, has found that UK businesses have made marked efforts to safeguard the wellbeing of their workforces over the past 12 months. This includes nearly half (46%) strengthening their wellbeing services and demonstrating a greater understanding of mental health.

I firmly believe the pandemic can be a force for positive change; we are at a turning point and we have opportunity to be less cynical and do it differently. We can lead with empathy and understanding. To retain our people we need to be better, we need to talk about things that are sometimes hard, and these guides gives a framework to do so.

I truly believe that this is essential for businesses to succeed.

Are you looking to return to work after a career break? Searching for advice and tips? WeAreTheCity has a whole dedicated section to returnships and returning to work. You can find open returnship opportunities, advice for experts about returning to work and tips on flexible working

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