The fallout from an extended injury or illness can devastate employees and their families financially, physically and mentally. Trying to live on decreased income from a workers’ compensation claim, coupled with family members having to take on additional responsibilities the disabled person cannot perform, can put a real strain on relationships. As time passes, the additional problem of becoming increasingly isolated from their former life raises tension levels in an already highly charged situation.
This scenario occurs more often than you might think. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2002, a total of 1.4 million injuries and illnesses in private industry required recuperation away from work beyond the day of the incident. What’s even more surprising about the Bureau’s findings is that injuries and illnesses to workers aged 20 to 44 accounted for 64 percent of all injured workers. Workers aged 65 and over accounted for only 1.7 percent of total injuries and illnesses. The fact that the majority of workers on extended leave are workers who will need to return to work clarifies how important setting the stage for their comeback really is.
Leslie Yerkes, an organizational behaviorist and president of Cleveland, Ohio-based Catalyst Consulting Group, Inc. notes, “Finding and keeping good people provides a competitive advantage for organizations. So, keeping the bond strong when employees are on family leave, working virtually or out on workers’ compensation is critical to not losing that employee to a competitor and to facilitate a rapid and smooth transition back into the workplace.” She recommends the following steps for maintain a strong connection and facilitating a smooth re-entry:
· Clarify expectations with the employee early on as to what they can and want to do. If job reassignment will be necessary upon their return, let them know that you are willing to explore possible options. Get a feel for the kinds of jobs they might be interested in and realistically explore how and where they can fit in.
· Assign a communication buddy to the individual who can commit to having a regular weekly update conversation with the absent employee. Make sure that the employee has a means to receive critical information while absent from the organization.
· Include the absent employee via phone teleconferencing in key events that will affect them directly. This is critical when it comes to changes in company/departmental policies or revisions in work floor procedures. You don’t want an employee to return to work only to be reprimanded the first day back for violating a policy change that they were unaware of. It increases the feeling that they have been left behind. Those negative feelings might continue to grow until the employee feels compelled to find another job.
· Encourage the work group to stay connected and communicate to the disabled employee that they care about their recovery. It’s like Hallmark always says, “When you care enough to send the very best.” Make sure an absent employee knows that they are truly missed by their co-workers. And most importantly, make sure the employee knows that their bosses are among those people!
The lesson to be learned from all of this is simple. Transitioning back into the workplace begins as soon as the employee starts their leave. If you plan for their re-entry from the outset, it will be as seamless as it should be.