Workplace dilemmas: how do I settle back into work after my operation?

Each month, our resident agony uncle deals with your workplace concerns. This month, returning to work after a long sick leave

Dear Tim,

Today is my first day at work after an absence of five months. I had a major operation in November 2018, and was told to expect a six-month period of convalescence. That time has now come to a close, and I’m getting stuck back into my high-pressure role.

    ...I worry that colleagues who are less supportive may see my current predicament as a moment of weakness.  

Trouble is, I’m not sure how best to go about it. There’s the issue of my stamina for starters: I simply don’t have the energy that I used to. I’m in a fairly senior position in my company and am renowned for my energetic style. I also have an hour-long drive to and from work, which uses some of my energy even before I’ve arrived.

I’m anxious about seeming to be on top of everything. It’s a competitive environment, and I worry that colleagues who are less supportive may see my current predicament as a moment of weakness. Maybe they’ll use it to showcase my shortcomings and demonstrate why they’re more suited to my job.

Even without this frisson of fear, I worry that people will think I’ve lost my touch. During my sick leave, it was fine if I seemed a bit vague or rambling. I could disappear upstairs for a nap pretty much whenever I wanted, and no one would think anything of it. But I can’t tell my colleagues that I’m sloping off for a snooze. They’ll think I’ve well and truly lost the plot.

The other thing I’m struggling with is people’s reactions to me. My operation was life changing, and I have an ongoing health condition that requires treatment. But you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong just to look at me. I’m not covered in bandages or scars; I don’t look pale or wan. Indeed, people keep telling me how well I look.

Even so, I’m conscious that colleagues are treading carefully around me. Half a year is a long time to be out of a working environment. There are new faces and the unofficial hierarchies that appear in any workplace have shifted, as they do.

How do I relocate myself in this new order, knowing that I’m not the person I was, that my experience has changed me, but that there’s still a job to be done, and I remain the best person for it?

Reply:

The anxiety you’re experiencing is only to be expected, given what you’ve been through. Major surgery leaves a psychological and emotional mark as well as a physical one. It rocks your confidence, reshapes your sense of self, and gives you a changed perspective on life.

Add that to the effects of a long period in which you’ve not been at work, and it’s hardly surprising that you feel diffident about your return to normality.

The good news is that the vast majority of people who return to work in circumstances like yours are able to continue with their same duties and in the same role as before. So you should have every confidence that, with the right support, you’ll be as capable and competent as ever.

    ...you may need to adjust your style in order to work with the flow of your energy.  

That said, you may need to adjust your style in order to work with the flow of your energy. You say that you’re known for being a lively person. If you find your zest for life lagging at the moment, it may be worth seeking some training to adjust your leadership style. This may make you feel more comfortable about stepping back into your senior role, providing you with support and peace of mind as you re-assume your former responsibilities but execute them in a new way.

Your employer will also play a role in ensuring a smooth return. One option, which you may already have explored, is to make a phased return. Rather than stepping straight back into your full-time role, you take on some elements of it, gradually increasing what you do as the weeks go by.

The benefits of a phased return are that you can re-establish yourself in the workplace without worrying that you’ll run out of steam. It can improve your mental health in these precious months of recovery. It can also help colleagues reacquaint themselves with you, so that some of the awkwardness and competitiveness you describe is dispelled.

Another good practice is to work with your manager to produce a return to work plan. This identifies what’s expected of you, and your employer, during your comeback. It can help your employer make Reasonable Adjustments that ensure you’re not disadvantaged in your role. It also provides an opportunity for dialogue about your job: are there elements that you simply can’t do? Should your role description be revised?

I think the most important thing to say is this: be kind to yourself. It’s exhausting to put on a front for your colleagues, so cut yourself some slack. If you need to rest, slip out to your car and take a break. Have a snooze or read a magazine. No one will judge you for looking after yourself.

And remember: what you’ve been through is life changing, as you said. Take stock, draw breath, and enjoy the stimulation of being able to work again. I won’t pretend it’s easy to return, but I am confident you’ll manage the process with aplomb.

Published: 14 May 2019

© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

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