As with any profession, returning to work after a long-term absence because of illness or injury can be daunting for healthcare providers. You might find yourself returning to an altered workplace environment and changes in your own abilities. The “aftershock” of your absence can be exacerbated by such changes, preventing you from becoming fully engaged with your work. Fortunately, there are steps both you and your employer can take to help you move forward.

Understanding Aftershock

Anyone returning to work after a lengthy absence can experience aftershock, regardless of the reason for that absence. Andrew Parsons, PhD, a master’s student at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, said, “The aftershock is related to changes in several areas that might not have been so apparent to the employee while they were away from work and receiving treatment. This can include physical changes, such as reduced energy and capabilities, or potential changes in relationships, such as negative attitudes about your absence and fewer social activities.”

To overcome aftershock and achieve work engagement, Dr Parsons advised that “Organizations should support the individual to develop their sense of empowerment, provide psychological resources, and create awareness of the trajectory of return to work.” He added that the process requires specific communication skills, such as coaching and mentoring, to rebuild the individual’s confidence.

The contribution of managers in the return to work of physicians cannot be underestimated. In particular, there are 4 key areas where the direct actions of superiors are crucial:1

  • Providing feedback
  • Offering assistance
  • Recognition of illness and limitations
  • Emotional support

If you do not feel you are receiving 1 or more of these, it may be time to arrange a meeting to discuss your progress and support needs.

Maintaining Contact

Long-term absence can lead to isolation and a loss of social contact with peers and colleagues,2 which can understandably cause you to worry about your position and value to the organization. Try to make a regular effort to communicate with your employer during your absence. It is important to brief them about your illness or injury, your recovery progress, any new challenges you may be facing, and any workplace adjustments you may require when you do return.

Conversely, your employer also has a responsibility to stay in regular contact, keeping you informed of new developments in the workplace. This can help provide assurance that you will be supported on your return. If possible, go in to your workplace for occasional meetings to discuss your recovery progress and explore ways in which your employer can support you in the return-to-work process. Visiting your workplace can also help maintain social connections and reduce feelings of isolation.

In a study published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, researchers asked breast cancer survivors who returned to work which practices from their supervisors they found most helpful.3 Maintaining communication during their absence was 1 of the 3 most helpful practices identified, alongside participating in planning their return to work process and flexibility in their work schedule for a certain duration after their return to work.