How to return to work after an absence [with a return to work plan]
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It can be difficult to return to work after an absence.

This is true when you’ve taken time off for a vacation. It is even more true when you’ve had to take time off for personal reasons, or due to an injury.

Recovering from a physical injury, or from mental burnout, is hard enough on its own. Recovering from an injury while working full time is even harder.

One way to return to work after a setback is to create a graduated return to work plan. With this method, you can work with your employers, colleagues, and doctors to reintegrate into the workforce in a manageable and productive way.

If you’ve had to take a break from work, whether due to a concussion, a back injury, for mental health reasons, bereavement, caring for a family member, or any other reason, getting back into the old routine is no easy task. Your return to work will be difficult, but you don’t have to overwhelm yourself. Here’s how to manage your return to work after an absence the healthy way.

What is a return to work plan?

A graduated return to work is a method of returning to the workplace in slow steps after an injury or absence. Instead of going back to full-time work right away, you can work a reduced number of hours each week and build back up to full-time hours over time. Your return to work plan is your plan for getting back to work on a reduced schedule, alongside any workplace accommodations you may need.

Going back to work full-time immediately after a long absence can be overwhelming and lead to a quick burnout. A phased return to work plan will help you manage your stress levels and stay healthy as you re-enter the workforce.

Graduated return to work plans benefit employers as well, as they can improve worker morale and reduce turnover. Allowing an experienced worker to return to work gradually is more cost-effective than hiring and training new replacements. It also means that the absent employee’s workload will be shared, rather than given to the rest of the team.

Developing the right graduated return to work plan will require cooperation with your doctor and your employer. Your doctor, as well as any specialists you have been seeing, should have recommendations for how you return to your duties, and your employer should offer reasonable accommodation.

Their recommendations may be for reduced hours each day, a reduced number of days each week, or reduced duties. They may also recommend accommodations like doing fewer strenuous tasks, spending less time on your feet, or using a chair instead of standing all day. You may have to do stretches or other exercises, or avoid kneeling and heavy lifting. You may need to use a chair at your workstation where you used to stand. Any accommodations like this can be a part of your return to work plan.

Why follow a return to work plan?

Just because you’re able to return to work doesn’t mean you’re able to return at full capacity. A return to work plan can help you build back up to a full-time schedule without overdoing it. With the right return to work plan, you can:

Build up your tolerance for work

Jumping straight into a 40 hour work week when you’re recovering from an injury could be overwhelming, slow your recovery, or even injure you again. It’s important to build your tolerance to long working hours back up so you don’t end up right back where you started. When you avoid taking on too much responsibility too quickly, you can make sure your return to work is manageable.

Avoid prolonging your injury or suffering new injuries

If you return to full-time work after an injury before you are ready, you may make your recovery much more difficult. Rest is integral to healing, and you won’t be able to rest if you are overworked. This could make your healing process take much longer than it otherwise would, and even exacerbate the injury.

Further, if you are injured you may not be able to do your job with full proficiency. This could make you more prone to mistakes, accidents, and even new injuries. With a graduated return to work program, you can manage your return to work to ensure you aren’t overwhelmed, reducing the likelihood of accidents and new injuries.

Return to work after an injury: Teddy bear

Allow time for appointments

If you are dealing with an injury or mental health problem, you may still have appointments with doctors, therapists, physiotherapists, and other specialists. A full workload would make it difficult to schedule these appointments and manage your recovery. With a graduated return to work, you will have time during the week for both appointments and work.

Maintain your relationships with colleagues

A gradual return to work can help you stay connected with coworkers throughout your recovery. By returning to work at reduced hours, you can get used to spending time with coworkers again, and prepare them to accommodate your new schedule. Returning to work slowly over time will make it easier for you to maintain productive and collaborative relationships. If you wait until you are ready to return full-time, your absence could be longer and your professional connections will be harder to maintain.

The social contact you get at work can also aid your healing process, as isolation can make recovery more difficult.

Retain your skills

A gradual return to work will allow you to practise your skills, without overwhelming yourself with full-time work. Coming back to the office at reduced hours will help you stay sharp and keep up with changes at your workplace, while still giving you time to rest.

Stabilise your finances

One of the most difficult aspects of taking time off work is coping with the loss of income. Many people return to work full-time too soon after an injury not because they are healed, but because they can’t afford not to work. This can result in a prolonged healing process, or even re-injury.

A graduated return to work is a realistic way to maintain an income stream without compromising your injury. A reduced work schedule will allow you to focus on your recovery without relying entirely on your savings or collecting unemployment insurance. Your income will be reduced with your hours, of course, but this compromise between income and recovery may be necessary.

What does a graduated return to work plan look like?

Generally, a return to work plan is a reduced schedule wherein work days and hours are slowly increased over the course of weeks or months.

For example, you could return to work for 8 hours in your first week, 12 in your second week, 16 in your third week, and so on. The specific hours and days, the speed at which work hours increase, and the number of work hours will all depend on your workplace, your injury, and your recovery.

Graduated return to work schedule example

An example graduated return to work plan could look like this:

Week 1— M: 4 hours W: 4 hours Week 2— M: 4 hours W: 4 hours F: 4 hours Week 3— M: 6 hours W: 6 hours F: 4 hours Week 4— M: 6 hours W: 6 hours F: 6 hours Week 5— M-F: 6 hours Week 6— M-F: 8 hours

Your return to work plan could take a couple weeks, or even a few months. In certain circumstances, you could even work reduced hours for years. You could also begin with simple worksite visits or meetings with a manager, instead of returning right to work. The exact schedule will depend on you, your workplace, and your injury.

How to create a successful return to work plan

It’s important to make sure your return to work plan is customised to your needs. No recovery plan is one-size-fits-all, and your return to work plan has to take your injury and your workplace into account. To create your return to work plan:

1. Speak with your doctors

Your health should be your first priority. It’s important to discuss returning to work with your doctors and specialists to determine before making your plan. They may have suggestions for what kind of work you are capable of without risking reinjury. This could include recommendations for how many hours to work, the types of activities to avoid, and methods of staying safe and preventing reinjury.

Once you have done this, you should get a doctor’s note confirming these recommendations. Your employer may not require this, but a return to work doctor’s note will help build your case for a return to work plan.

2. Speak with your manager

Once you have created a possible return to work plan with your doctor, speak with your manager. Your manager will need to see the doctor’s recommendations in order to accommodate you. They may also need to clear your plan with the company’s human resources department, or even other colleagues.

It’s important that your manager understands that you aren’t to be overworked. They should be on the same page as the doctor and accommodate your recovery. They may not be familiar with return to work plans, so you should be clear about what your needs are.

If you are self-employed, you may want to reach out to a small number of clients and let them know you can return to work at reduced hours. Depending on their needs, they could accommodate you with fewer projects or smaller workloads.

3. Speak with your colleagues

It’s important that the people you work closely with understand your return to work plan. You shouldn’t start showing up for half-days without explaining when you will be there and why. You may also need to clarify what duties you will have and who you will be working with. There could even be a temporary replacement who you need to help train. Your recovery will be much more successful when you have an understanding team behind you.

4. Stick to the plan

It’s important to stick to the plan that you developed with your doctor. Even if you feel strong and able, you shouldn’t increase hours or duties faster than you had initially planned. It’s all too easy to overextend yourself and prolong your recovery.

Once you return to work, you might start to feel more energetic and ready to get back to a full schedule. Try not to get ahead of yourself. Working slightly below your capabilities is a way to ensure that you don’t exhaust yourself and get hurt again. It’s better to keep a little fuel in the tank to make sure you don’t overdo it.

How to write a return to work letter

When you’re ready to return to work, you will have to inform your employer. It is best to do this in writing. That way, there is a paper trail and correspondence you can refer to to make sure you are always on the same page.

To prepare to write your return to work letter, make sure you have all the information you need. Prepare ahead of time, and make sure have:

  • Approval of your doctor
  • A return to work plan to propose
  • Any documentation the employer might require, like EI information, Workers Compensation documents, or a doctor’s note
  • The date you can begin work

Once you have all the information you need, you can begin writing your return to work letter. To write your letter:

Address your letter to the right people

You will likely have to send your letter to your direct supervisor, whether they are team leader, department manager, or the CEO. If your company has an HR department, you may want to address an HR representative as well. Make sure anyone who needs to know about your return to work will have the information they need.

Show appreciation

It’s important to thank your employer for accommodating your recovery. This applies to the time you had to take off, as well as the graduated return to work plan that you are proposing. If your employer is assisting you and your recovery, you should acknowledge them and let them know that you are thankful.

Update your employer

If you have been away from work for a long time, you may need to give your employer updates on what has changed for you in the meantime. You can update them on your recovery from an injury, or let them know that you have kept your skills sharp using online tools while you have been away. If you had to travel during your absence, you can let them know that you are back and ready to work.

Explain your return to work plan

If you plan to return to work gradually, or if you require accommodations, this is your opportunity to explain your plan to your employer. The details will have to be finalised with the boss, but you can get the process started in your return to work letter. You can explain your doctor’s recommendations, suggest starting hours, and ask what information or documents the employer will need to get you started.

Include the appropriate documents

A return to work note from your doctor can be an asset in building your case for a return to work plan. You may also need insurance information, employment insurance or workers compensation documents, a resume, or any other documents that support your return to work plan. Make sure you have everything in order so you won’t be required to do any unexpected paperwork after you receive a response.

Be polite and professional

You might be off work, but you still have to keep your communications professional. Make sure your return to work letter is polite, contains the right information, and is appropriate for your workplace. Effective communication will be an important part of establishing your graduated return to work, whether it’s with your boss, your coworkers, or your doctor.

Return to work letter example

Dear [supervisor],

I really appreciate the help you have given me by allowing me to take time off for my recovery.

I am writing to let you know that I will be ready to return to work part-time on Jun 1, 2022. I have spoken with my doctors and we have decided that I am ready for a graduated return to the workplace.

With a graduated return, I would begin working part time and slowly build back up to my previous hours. My doctor has also recommended that I begin using a chair at my workstation, as standing for too long can still cause pain in my injured areas.

I am excited to get back to work, and even more excited to see the team again. Please let me know when we can set up a meeting to discuss a graduated work schedule and other accommodations.

A return to work note from my doctor is attached. Please let me know if you need anything else.

Again, thank you for all your help. I really appreciate it. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely, [your name]

Ben Temple

Written By

Ben Temple

Community Success Manager & CV Writing Expert

Ben is a writer, customer success manager and CV writing expert with over 5 years of experience helping job-seekers create their best careers. He believes in the importance of a great resume summary and the power of coffee.

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