Phased return is only possible if you are well enough to perform some work and are likely to recover sufficiently to fulfil your previous role.2 The advice of a physician or occupational psychologist is required to determine whether a phased return is possible. It may be tempting to use your own medical expertise to make such decisions, but it is always better to seek independent advice.
There are a wide range of workplace adjustments that can be implemented to facilitate your return, including flexible working hours, alternative or light duties, training and assistance, and use of special equipment or furniture.4 As a physician, you are likely to already understand how your illness or injury may limit your ability to perform your regular duties. It is therefore important to be open and honest about your condition and limitations so that you can get the best support and adjustments available.
Taking a Person-Centered Approach
Each return-to-work case is unique because illness and recovery are individual experiences. Any support and adjustments must be based on your unique needs, rather than having a standard approach for all. As Dr Parsons emphasized, “It’s really important for organizations to realize a 1-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be effective. There is a need to make processes bespoke or person-centered.”
Evidence shows that a person-centered approach increases the chances of a successful return to work. For example, researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, found that people who had suffered a stroke and were offered a person-centered rehabilitation program focusing on their return to work expressed satisfaction at being given an opportunity to contribute to decisions around their rehabilitation. 5
In situations in which long-term absence is caused by illnesses such as cancer or chronic disease, it may be helpful for your employer to create awareness among staff about the issues you are facing. This might feel uncomfortable; perhaps you would prefer to do this yourself by talking to closer colleagues privately. Although your health is your own business and not something you need to discuss with colleagues, it can help them understand and support you better.
Researchers from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Univeristät in Munich, Germany, conducted an online survey across 7 European countries of participants living with chronic conditions. Survey participants cited the attitudes and support of others as major factors affecting their lives when they return to work.6 The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, highlighted the importance of changing the attitudes of coworkers and managers to counter the stigmatization of people with chronic health conditions returning to the workplace. Effective communication skills may play a role here, with Dr Parsons highlighting such skills as an area that colleagues and managers may need to work on to facilitate meaningful interactions with employees returning to work after a long absence.
Ensuring a Smooth Transition
The aftershock of returning to work after a long absence is common across all industries, but an effective return-to-work process can help people settle back quickly and achieve work engagement again. Key factors for physicians in facilitating a smooth transition back into the workplace is for you to maintain regular communication with your workplace and to be proactive in planning your strategy for reintegration. Your employer can help by allowing phased returns, flexible schedules, and light duties while you are still recovering.
- Negrini A, Corbière M, Lecomte T, et al. How can supervisors contribute to the return to work of employees who have experienced depression? J Occup Rehabil. 2018;28(2):279-288.
- Managing long-term sickness absence. University of Cambridge. https://www.hr.admin.cam.ac.uk/policies-procedures/sickness-absence-policy/sickness-absence-guidance/managing-long-term-sickness. Accessed February 11, 2019.
- Caron M, Durand MJ, Tremblay D. Perceptions of breast cancer survivors on the supporting practices of their supervisors in the return-to-work process: a qualitative descriptive study. J Occup Rehabil.2018;28(1):89-96.
- Managing long-term/ongoing absence guidance. University of Glasgow. https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_554571_en.pdf. Accessed February 11, 2019.
- Öst Nilsson A, Eriksson G, Johansson U, Hellman T. Experiences of the return to work process after stroke while participating in a person-centered rehabilitation program. Scand J Occup Ther. 2017;24(5):349-356.
- Foitzek N, Ávila CC, Ivandic I, Bitenc Č, et al. What persons with chronic health conditions need to maintain or return to work—results of an online-survey in seven European countries. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(4):595.