Careers advice

Returning to work after long illness: our guide

Here’s how to prepare.

What you’ll learn

  • How to communicate with the organisation about your return.
  • How to pace yourself when returning to work from illness.
  • How to start getting up to speed after a long time away.

There’s a big difference between returning to work after a few days off due to sickness, and doing the same after a much longer period of time away. Going back to the office after a lengthy illness can be a daunting prospect, and the last thing you need as you’re returning to full strength is to feel stressed about this change.

To help you deal with the transition, we’ve created this handy checklist of things to think about and tick off as you get ready for your first day back on the job.

Returning to work after illness: getting ready

1. Communicate with your boss

Even if you discussed with your manager or the HR department some time ago about when you will come back, it’s important to reopen communication channels in the immediate run up to your return. 

There are a few things you should aim to get across during this communication, including:

  • The date: just to ensure no wires have been crossed, make sure you’re both on the same page about when you’ll be back in the office.
  • How you are feeling: while, of course, you don’t need to get into the details of your illness (and the business should respect your privacy), it’s a good idea to let them know a general idea of what’s going on now. For example, if you’ve had a surgery and get tired regularly, let them know that this is the case. Doing so will allow you and your manager to devise a plan that will work for you both.
  • Ongoing appointments: let your manager know if you have a schedule for ongoing medical care related to a prolonged illness.

Talk to your boss in the run up to your return to the office.

2. Talk to your colleagues

This one is less important than talking to your boss, and is more about helping you ease back into things by opening up informal conversations with your colleagues. This could be as simple as messaging your team on Slack or Hangouts channel just letting them know that you’re looking forward to being back and to seeing them all. This could also involve organising a coffee morning with your coworkers on your first day back so you get the chance to say hi and catch up with everyone.

3. Consider a phased return

In some cases, a phased return to work might be the best option. By this we mean, instead of putting the pedal to the metal and coming back to your role exactly as you left it (i.e. the full quota of hours and responsibilities), you take it slowly and gradually build up to where you were.

It might be that your doctor has recommended a specific course of recovery for you to follow, such as working from home to start with and working towards a full return to the office. In that case, it’s a good idea to get that recommendation in writing so that you can show it to your manager and come to an arrangement that works for both you and the organisation.

4. Be prepared for questions

While those closest to you in the organisation will know where you have been, those people who you only see occasionally might not have picked up that you were away due to illness. Indeed, they may have thought you had resigned and be surprised to see you at all.

How you choose to deal with this is entirely up to you, but if you’re anxious about how to answer questions from well meaning colleagues, it might be a good idea to come up with a spiel you can give that you’re comfortable with.

5. Don’t expect too much of yourself

You might feel like you need to catch up on lost time when you come back to work after a prolonged absence, However, it’s important to understand that, for a while, you might need to take it easy on yourself for a while.

As well as the fact that you might be feeling a little physically under the weather, you also need to give yourself the opportunity to get up to speed with what has happened in the business in the time you’ve been away. It’s ultimately going to be unhelpful for both you and the team if you simply rock up, log on and dive back into where you were before you went away because, chances are, things have moved on in the meantime.

A phased return, perhaps where you start off working from home, might be the best option for you.

6. Organise meetings

One of the most productive things you can do on your first day back in the office is to organise meetings with those people you work with most closely. As well as giving you a chance to reopen dialogues with each of these individuals (and have a much needed catch up) this will help you get clued up about everything that’s happened since you’ve been away. 

Again, it’s important that you don’t expect that, once you’ve had these meetings, you’ll be exactly where you need to be. It’s perfectly normal to feel a bit disorientated after a prolonged absence from work, especially if there have been big shifts in business priorities and objectives.

7. Acknowledge if you feel overwhelmed

One of the first things you’ll probably do when you sit down on your first morning is open up your inbox. And there they are, hundreds of emails awaiting your response. You might find similar situations replicated across various aspects of your role, from workflow tools like Trello to delivery pipelines. It’s easy, in this situation, to feel overwhelmed at the sheer volume of work that’s waiting for you.

We’ve already talked about the importance of not expecting too much of yourself from a practical perspective, but it’s also important that you don’t get frustrated and acknowledge how you’re feeling. If you take things one step at a time, you’ll be back to where you were before you know it.