How to support staff returning to work after a career break

Richard Holmes and Paul Kelly examine the challenges of returning to work after a career break and outline how employers can support their staff at this crucial point

Returning to work after a career break can be extremely daunting. Whether the time off was maternity leave, illness or a sabbatical, it’s normal for employees to feel anxious about the prospect of going back to work. 

For many, wondering what’s changed about their role and the organisation combined with the change in routine can lead to anxiety. Providing the right support at the right time can help reduce this stress and ensure returning employees reintegrate well. 

Provide insight

Facing the unknown is a major cause of anxiety when thinking about going back to work after a break. To help returners, ask their team to pull together a ‘change log’ outlining major business or departmental changes since they left. Keeping it high-level will enable returning employees to get an at-a-glance summary of the big shifts, helping them feel like they’re up to date and part of the team.

Keep in touch

Communication is key, and it’s got to start before their first day back. When talking to the returning employee, encourage your HR team to go beyond the basics such as start date and contract and ask about any worries they may have. This may uncover concerns, questions or even training requirements which can be tackled before they return, allowing for a smoother transition.

Consider a phased approach

Depending on the reason for the absence and the individual’s needs, it may be a good idea to consider a phased return to work. For many people returning from a career break, this can help soften the contrast between their time off and being back at work, avoiding a sudden shock to the system. Having an open and honest conversation with the employee about their needs and what they think would make their return successful is the best way to see if a phased return would be helpful.

Make a plan

Creating a thorough, written plan that covers everything from hours to catch-up meetings where team members can hand over work will make sure all important topics are covered and both the employee and their team are clear on what to expect. Avoid the common mistake of only mapping out the first few weeks: thinking longer term and booking in periodic reviews will help the employee feel that they’re supported both in the short and long term.

Identify priorities

When someone’s been out of the business for a significant period of time, their projects and responsibilities will either have been allocated to other team members or put on pause. Support the employee’s manager in looking at the team’s workload and deciding what the returning employee’s priorities should be so that they’re clear on where to spend their time. This is particularly important if they’re returning part-time or have a phased return as workloads will need to be scaled to match.

Reflect on the workplace culture

Just as the right culture can make new team members feel either alienated or instantly at home, it’s the same with returning employees. Making sure your organisation has a culture that respects the boundaries between work and home life is key, not only for those coming back from a career break, but to help all employees get the vital recovery time they need. Having the right policies in place is just the starting point: seeing senior leaders model these healthy workplace behaviours gives employees permission to do the same.

Career break policy

As there are no laws governing career breaks it is important that both the employer and employee communicate respectively what their expectations are when an employee returns from a career break, especially if it has been a long one.  

Failure to have an open dialogue can lead to resentment and ultimately the breakdown of the employment relationship. With career breaks becoming more and more common, especially amongst millennials, employers are advised to put in place a formal career break policy that sets out their eligibility criteria for taking a career break and the process for employees returning to the workforce after taking a break.

Richard Holmes is a director of wellbeing at Westfield Health, and Paul Kelly is head of employment at Blacks Solicitors