Helping employees return to work after a burnout

Friday, September 9, 2016

Employees who have experienced a burnout generally feel some anxiety about returning to work. They fear being judged by their colleagues and they may also feel ashamed. Mental health problems are complex and, unfortunately, they are all too often perceived as a sign of weakness or less valid than physical illnesses.1

In addition to having to face others, employees returning to work after a burnout have to readjust to their work tasks and schedule. They also need to regain their confidence in their abilities to perform their duties without fear of relapse. And if those duties have changed, there may be the added pressure of learning something new.

Employers have a clear role to play in the reintegration process. The risk of a relapse cannot be ignored, especially if the disability was work-related. “If nothing has changed, their problem could get worse,” notes Louise Saint-Arnaud, psychologist, researcher and expert in workplace psychosocial environments.2

Ensuring a successful return to work

Returning to work isn’t a sign the healing process is complete; it is part of the healing. And planning ahead for the return to work is an essential part of this process.3 As St-Arnaud states, “There are two parts to any successful return to work: the employer has to get involved well in advance of the employee’s first day back, and the employee must understand that they have a key role to play.”4 Here are a few suggestions to help lay the groundwork before the return to work and facilitate the process.

Stay in touch

By showing interest and empathy towards the employee, the employer will better understand their situation. Before the employee goes on leave, ask if it would be okay to call them from time to time to see how they’re doing. If the relationship between the employee and the manager isn’t optimal, a colleague or supervisor the employee is more comfortable with could do this instead.

On the first phone call, simply find out how the employee is doing and remind them to fill out the insurance forms to avoid delays. This will help establish the first contact and see if they have any concerns. If it seems like the employee is receptive, it could be a good opportunity to give them information about resources that may be useful. You could also ask them if they’d be okay with an occasional call to check on how they’re doing. When things seems to be settling down a bit for them, you could start giving them some news about the office, invite them to get-togethers or special events and start planning their return to work.

Resolving the problems that led to the disability

Dr. François Baumann, a general practitioner and author of several books on overwork, confirms that, “If we don’t try to get at the root of the work problem, they’ll be re-exposed to the very same risk.” If the disability is related to work or the workplace, it’s important that the problems that led to it are resolved or are in the process of being resolved when the employee returns to work;5 otherwise, their return will be compromised. It may be necessary to modify the employee’s responsibilities, lighten their workload, assign them to a new position or adjust their work hours.

Planning a gradual return to work

A gradual return to work involves gradually increasing the number of days worked or tasks to be accomplished based on the person’s ability. This is the most common accommodation measure. It’s known for its beneficial effects and has the advantage of strengthening the employee’s health.6 To ensure a successful gradual return to work after a burnout, the employer should focus on the recovery rather than performance objectives. That said, it’s important to use this measure wisely and not make it the norm.6

Welcoming the employee returning to work

A manager’s positive attitude will help promote a positive return-to-work experience for the employee. It’s also good to enlist the support of other employees right from the beginning; they may, for example, send flowers, words of encouragement,7 stay in touch, etc. In the early days of the return to work, those who are closer to the employee may emphasize their strengths and skills to encourage their self-esteem, which suffers during a burnout or depression.8 The recipe is simple: treat them the way you would want to be treated. Listen, show you’re interested, and have fun together. It’s also a good idea to designate one or more colleagues to support the employee in the early days.

An ounce of prevention…

Being proactive can sometimes help prevent extended absences due to burnout. If an employee is showing early warning signs, it’s a good idea to meet with them to help prevent an extended absence, reduce the duration of a disability or promote a positive return to work.9

It’s also a good idea to offer mental health training in the workplace to all employees and members of the management team so everyone understands that they play a key role in preventing a burnout or helping their colleagues recover from a burnout.10

These are some suggestions to help promote a successful return to work. Feel free to adapt them or come up with other ideas of your own. The most important part is for you (and your employee) to do everything you can to ensure the return to work is successful.

Definition of burnout*

Although not categorized as a mental illness, burnout compromises a person’s ability to remain physically and mentally healthy. It’s a form of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that stems from intense and constant stress at work. Contrary to popular belief, burnout tends to affect people who are enthusiastic and energetic with ambitious personal goals and a high level of engagement at work.

*Taken from the Preventing employee absences guide

RESOURCES

1. Bérubé, Marie. Burnout: Comment faciliter le retour au travail d’un(e) collègue, published on oserchanger.com [in French only]

2. Lambert-Chan, Marie. Réussir le retour au travail, published on December 13, 2011 on LaPresse.ca [in French only]

3. DESJARDINS INSURANCE Guide. Preventing employee absences, managing disabilities and promoting wellness, Manager’s guide. April 2015

4. Vigneault, Alexandre. Se relever d’un burnout published on April 1, 2016 on LaPresse.ca [in French only]

5. Idem

6. DESJARDINS INSURANCE Guide. Preventing employee absences, managing disabilities and promoting wellness, Manager’s guide, April 2015.

7. Lambert-Chan, Marie. Réussir le retour au travail, published on December 13, 2011 on LaPresse.ca [in French only]

8. Bérubé, Marie. Burnout : Comment faciliter le retour au travail d’un(e) collègue, published on oserchanger.com [in French only]

9. DESJARDINS INSURANCE Guide. Preventing employee absences, managing disabilities and promoting wellness, Manager’s guide, April 2015

10. Lambert-Chan, Marie. Réussir le retour au travail, published on December 13, 2011 on LaPresse.ca [in French only]

OTHER RESOURCES

CANADIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION. A Guide for Managing the Return to Work External link. Opens in a new window.

DESJARDINS INSURANCE. Mental Health: a Workplace Guide Opens in a new window..