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How to Support an Employee Returning to Work

25th May 2022
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Taking the time off work to invest in your health and wellbeing is sometimes necessary but coming back into the office following time away after recovering mentally can be difficult. 

As an employer or a colleague of someone coming back to their job after time away, you’ll no doubt want to support them in any way you can to ensure they feel comfortable. Mental health issues and cases where addiction is involved still carry a stigma and knowing how best to act can be challenging. 

Here are a few ideas of how you can help someone you work with feel welcomed back without judgement or shame. 

Consider the circumstances of their treatment

The circumstances for the employee attending rehabilitation can be varied – they may have been forced to go by relatives or a partner, or they might have chosen to attend for themselves. It might be the first time they’ve sought out treatment for their personal issues or it could be that they’ve attended several times in the past. 
Their reasons for going can also be individual – it might have been because of stress and burnout, mental health problems or substance abuse. But the reasons will alter how best to manage the reintegration process, so they’re important to know. For example, if burnout was the cause of their time at rehab, it would be a good idea to slowly ease them back into working and discuss ways their job can be made less overwhelming for the future.  

Remember your role

While it’s important to stay open and receptive to a colleague, it’s also vital that you remember your role in their situation and where the limits lie. You’re not there to be their therapist or sponsor, and it’s a wise decision to let them dictate the trajectory of conversations. 
Struggling with addiction or mental health problems can be debilitating but simply offering an ear when they want to talk can be enough. Olivia Mueller, VP of Research at points out: “since mental health issues make it difficult to express any positive emotions, like gratitude or appreciation, you may feel like your kindness goes unnoticed. But the truth is that thoughtful deeds can give someone the strength to get through the day”.

Ensure they don’t overwork

If an employee has attended rehab for substance abuse, it can be common for them to substitute one addiction for another and begin overworking. They may use their job to avoid dealing with difficult thought processes or triggers, but this can be just as unhealthy for their wellbeing. Someone who has an addictive personality is far more likely to become fixated on something. While focusing on their work may seem like a positive development, it could be dangerous to their sobriety. 
If you notice signs of workaholism and fear it could be a replacement for their previous addiction, make sure your employee attends regular meetings and spends time with their friends and family, and encourage them to take part in sober activities as a distraction rather than relying on work.

Note the stress factors

With your employee back at work, it can be helpful to anticipate any stress factors or triggers they may encounter during the workday. These might be the anxiety of returning to the team and the awkwardness of conversations surrounding their absence, or they may fear being misunderstood or judged for their mental health problems or addiction. There may be a worry that they’ll have lost the trust of their colleagues or that they’ll be indebted to the business for needing time off. 
In addition to all of this, there will be the difficulty of adjusting to their new life and routines. Understanding that they’ll be facing all of this, and potentially more, will help you create a supportive dialogue to alleviate their fears. Provide reassurance to them that they’re still just as valued as they were before and that they’ll be supported going forward without judgement. 

Final thoughts

It can be difficult to welcome a staff member back after time away, particularly as they will no doubt still be facing their own challenges as a result of their aftercare. In supporting them at this stage of their life, you can contribute not only to their own personal successes but also help them return to being an integral part of the company which is incredibly worthwhile for all involved. 
Ensure that their return is gradual and flexible to their needs, so they can attend aftercare appointments and meetings, and provide regular positive reinforcement and encouragement. Be aware of any potential risk factors and conflicts between colleagues and be sure to respect their privacy. In doing this, they can begin to feel normal in the workplace as quickly as possible without it interfering with their abstinence. 

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