Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Helping Employees Regain Their Productivity After A Prolonged Absence

Around our house, nothing signals the end of summer more than helping our kids prepare for their return to the daily school routine. The arrival of the end of summer also means that companies are now returning to full strength with most of their employees having finished their vacation time away from work.

While taking a vacation break can provide us with the benefit of recharging ourselves and allowing us to clear our focus, there can be some feelings of ambivalence surrounding those first few days back on the job over what we may find awaiting us upon our return. This is especially true for employees who return to work after a prolonged absence from taking a maternity, paternity or sick leave.

Of course, returning to work after a prolonged absence can provide its own share of challenges to employees, issues which may not be obvious to the organization’s leadership or their fellow team members. Indeed, unlike employees returning from a holiday break, these employees have to contend with concerns over unexpected additions to their workloads or changes made to their role within the organization while they were away. Such issues can have a dramatic impact not only on their productivity, but also on their ability to ease back into their role as a member of your team.

With this in mind, here are three steps leaders can take to help their employees with the transition of returning back to work after a prolonged break.

1. Be interested in learning more about their time away from work
A few days ago, I was told the story of an employee who returned to work six months after going on sick leave. During his first week back, not one of his co-workers or his boss asked anything about how he was doing or if his time away from work had done him good. Instead, the only thing people at his company were interested in was how soon he could get a certain task or report done. Needless to say, in talking about his experience, it was clear that this person was definitely feeling disengaged, if not wondering about his future as an employee of this organization.

Granted, it can be uncomfortable for some leaders, as well as employees, to delve into the personal lives of their co-workers, especially if their absence was physically or psychologically-related. However, by not showing a willingness to acknowledge the reason for their time away – as well as showing an interest in how they are managing with their return back – leaders will only make it more challenging for these employees to re-connect with their work and their team mates.

As the example mentioned above shows, while you might be grateful to have your employees back on the job, choosing to ignore the reason behind their departure from work can have a deleterious effect on their ability to resume their role within your team.

2. Remind employees of specific contributions they can make to the organization
In returning to work after a long break, employees can feel apprehensive about potential changes in the organization, as well as the reason why they needed to take time off from work in the first place. Both of these factors can end up having a significant impact on their perception and subsequent ability to contribute in a meaningful fashion. To help offset these feelings of self-doubt, leaders need to show employees why you value their return by reminding them of what special knowledge or skills they bring to the team.

For example, leaders could welcome these employees back by telling them about a new product line they’re about to start work on and how the organization will benefit from their involvement given their knack for coming up with creative workarounds to unexpected obstacles. By pointing out specific examples of what these employees can contribute to your organization, leaders can demonstrate to employees the value and importance they play in reaching your organization’s goals, giving them a big boost toward getting back on track and fully participating in your team’s efforts.

3. Provide a sincere gesture to employees to welcome them back into the fold
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest concerns returning employees face is how will their return be treated by others in the team. And as is the case in most situations, the actions a leader takes will play a big role in defining both the team’s perception and subsequent treatment of their returning co-worker. This is why it’s important that leaders don’t simply gloss over the return of these employees, but instead ensure that their re-integration back into the team is accomplished with as little difficulty as possible.

One of the easiest ways to start this process is by offering these employees a sincere and genuine gesture welcoming them back into your organization. Now, this doesn’t need to be elaborate and it certainly doesn’t need to be very public as the last thing anyone wants is to have too much attention drawn to their return to work. Instead, leaders can simply leave them a short ‘Welcome back’ note or take a few minutes to stop by their desk to personally offer their support to help ease their employees back into their role.

Although these are not complex or difficult gestures to perform, the fact that leaders make the effort to do them will send a clear message to the rest of the team of how to view this employee’s return. Additionally, it will also give returning employees some much needed reassurance that the organization’s leadership is willing to offer support and empathy regarding the needs of their employees.

Returning back to work can be a challenging and worrisome process for employees coming back from a prolonged absence. Recognizing these issues and helping to ease their concerns will not only ensure a smoother transition back into their position within your team, it will also encourage a speedier resumption of their active participation and productivity within your organization, something all leaders should aspire to foster as part of their mandate to lead those around them.

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  1. On September 2nd, 2010 at 12:00 PM Drew Hawkins said:

    I think being interested in their time away is a great first step. Just being concerned in what they can do for you is a step backward from servant leadership. It would almost come across as though their only value is in productivity, which in essence would devalue engagement.

  2. On September 2nd, 2010 at 4:11 PM Paul Kiser said:


    I really like this article! From time to time I have worked for people who were poor managers and it took me several years to understand why I was nervous when I came back from taking time off. What I later discovered is that poor managers gather courage when the subordinate is gone to take action that they would never do when the employee is present.

    A few months ago I watched this happen to someone else and realized that it is fairly common in the workplace. This employee was a long term employee in a food retail chain and she did not want to get into management, but she knew more about the store operations than almost everyone around her. A new manager came into the store and her personality clashed with this employee. While the employee did nothing to justify termination the new manager waited until the employee took several days off and then fired her when she returned to work for a few minor infractions that had been previously written up and resolved. It was really a coward’s way to address the personality clash.

    I hadn’t thought about the issue of failing to welcome back the employee, but that is a great point. I favor a gentle re-entry approach. Let the employee do work from home for a week or so, then work half days, the back full-time. Of course, a flexible work schedule is better, especially for new parents or anyone dealing with a family crisis.

  3. On September 3rd, 2010 at 3:03 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Drew – I couldn’t agree more, Drew. If we recognize that leadership means being in service of those around you, then it’s important that we provide support and understanding for the challenges employees can face when returning to work after a prolonged absence.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Drew.


    @Paul – Thanks Paul; I’m glad you enjoyed this piece.

    It is an unfortunate reality in many workplaces to have insecure managers taking advantage of an employee’s leave of absence to implement changes that can adversely affect the departed employee. No doubt, this is one of the reasons why many people choose not to take anytime from work, even if it would be beneficial for them – out of fear of what changes might be made in their absence.

    Glad you liked the point about welcoming employees back from a prolonged absence. It’s not a difficult gesture to make, and yet especially in context of the issue mentioned above, it can go a long way toward helping disarm any fears or concerns they might have about what happened while they were away.

    Thanks again Paul for sharing your experiences with this issue.

  4. On January 25th, 2012 at 8:47 PM Tabby said:

    I had to take a 3 month leave of absence from work after a car accident and for having surgery. When I got back I'd found that people were very interested in talking about me. Apparently at a time I was 'almost dead', 'had cancer' and who knows what else.. none of this happened and I'm not sure who started it. Though I guess it was nice for them to be concerned about me even if they had the wrong information?

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