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The return to work – 5 tips for welcoming back employees with disabilities

By October 21, 2011August 6th, 2019Uncategorized

Coinciding with National Disability Employment Awareness Month (October, for both US and Canada), I attended a conference earlier this week to listen to Rona Maynard (author, speaker and former editor-in-chief of Chatelaine) speak to employers about “the healing power of work,” and working with employees who have mental health disabilities.

The True Cost of Workplace Mental Health was the 4th annual conference held by Business Takes Action (BTA), a program of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) funded by the government of Ontario.

Rona Maynard who herself has battled with depression and was widely known as a voice to Canadian women (and men) during her reign at Chatelaine, was an ideal choice for keynote speaker, as she had also encountered under her leadership employees with mental illnesses such as severe depression. She candidly shared her successes and failures, as well as things she wished that she – as an employer – had done differently.

One of the things Rona touched upon was managing an employee’s return to work. This needs to be taken into consideration with any employee returning to work after any leave of absence due to illness, maternity leave, etc. But it is especially important when mental health is involved simply because of the stigma that still exists around illnesses such as depression.

If handled well, an employee’s return-to-work following illness could be a great success. Many organizations have written policies on how to handle this but even those with the best of intentions can sometimes miss the mark when it comes to reintegrating the employee into the team. Here are 5 tips for reintegrating employees with disabilities – mental, physical or any kind!

1. Celebrate it: Your employee’s absence did not go unnoticed, so it would be impossible for him or her to “sneak” quietly back into their role at the office. Whether he/she has been conquering cancer or battling depression, their return to the workplace represents a triumph and a huge step in their recover process. It is not something to glaze over – celebrate it! Get the whole team involved and make it known that the organization is thrilled to have this person back on board.

2. Make it gradual: Depending on the nature of his or her work, it sometimes makes sense to reintegrate the person slowly, easing from a working-from-home arrangement to part-time, before they return to their full-time roles. This could help both the employee to and the workplace to readjust.

3. Talk about it: There is nothing worse for a returning employee than office gossip, and sometimes silence can be even worse. Get your returning employee involved in managing the message around his/her return. How much or how little they want to disclose is up to the employee, but let him or her know that the organization is willing to ensure everyone is informed and educated about the issue, if that is what your employee wants. Otherwise, ensure that the team is prepared to respect his or her privacy so that the returning employee won’t be surprised with inappropriate, personal questions.

4. Get up to speed: It can be hard for an employee to feel like part of the team while they have been “out of the loop” for so long, and this can extend beyond work-related matters. To help him or her get caught up, make a list of all the major things that happened while your employee was gone – did someone get married or have a baby? Who joined the team and who left? Did the team started an annual charity fundraiser like a CN tower climb? Is there a new coffee machine in the break room? Try to think of everything significant that has happened or changed and fill your returning employee in from day one so that he or she feels reconnected and looped in!

5. Regular touch-points: Check in with your returning employee at regular intervals to ensure their reintegration is going smoothly. This can start with a short one-on-one at the end of the day followed by weekly touch-points to see how things are going. This is a great opportunity for you to learn what is working and what is not working, early on in the process. It can also make the employee feel like it is truly among your top priorities to make his or her return a real success.