Stay in touch.
What barriers do employees experience when returning to work after a long absence?
Gretel Schrijvers: “It depends on what went on during their absence. If their employer stayed in touch with them throughout this period and prepared their reintegration thoroughly, this usually goes smoothly. But if not, the return to work will feel very abrupt and there is a higher risk that the employee will experience anxiety and stress."
Elke Geraerts: "Employees who have been absent for a long time feel as if they have let their team down. Therefore, a feeling of guilt towards colleagues is often a major psychological barrier. These employees fear that they will no longer be considered as a fully-fledged member of the team. Interim contact – not only with HR, but also with the supervisor and colleagues – can reassure them."
Gretel Schrijvers: "The first day back at work after a long period of absence is crucial. It should be considered in the same way as the first day for a new employee, as the work situation may have changed significantly while your employee was absent. Give them a warm welcome and provide a personal supervisor. Also make sure that there is not a pile of dossiers on their desk."
Why is contact between absent employees and their employer such a thorny issue?
Gretel Schrijvers: “In the working environment, it is generally considered best not to disturb someone who is absent. We avoid all contact in order to respect the division between work and private life, even though this boundary is becoming increasingly blurred. The corona crisis has greatly accelerated this change. All of a sudden we were in our employees’ living rooms."
Elke Geraerts: "I do not believe in a strict separation between work and private life. After all, we are the same real-life human being in both contexts, aren't we? Constantly switching between these two worlds costs more energy than it saves. An employee’s home situation is a crucial piece of information for their employer as it helps them to understand that employee’s specific needs. This enables them to act more effectively in the event of a long-term absence – or even better, to prevent the absence in the first place."
Faulty legal framework
But does legislation not provide employers with a framework to deal with reintegration correctly?
Gretel Schrijvers: "The legislation is far from adequate. I would even go so far as to say, stay away from the official reintegration process. Each year, we supervise more than 6,500 reintegration trajectories, and almost half of the employees are later found to be permanently unfit to return to work. This often involves people who have been off work for years, for whom a solution has never been sought. It goes without saying that it is difficult for them to return to work in the same company."
Elke Geraerts: "The legal framework is rather soft and of little practical use. The tangle of rules that are only partly binding creates chaos, which is anything but conducive to your employee’s recovery. So we urgently need to change."
Gretel Schrijvers: "There are many other more efficient ways to reintegrate employees. An examination prior to resuming work for example, is a much more flexible option than a reintegration pathway. This would give employers insight into the situation sooner, so that together with the employee, they could look for ways to enable the employee to go back to work."
What flexible options are available to help employees back to work?
Gretel Schrijvers: "The corona crisis has shown that both employees and employers have a healthy ability to adapt. The war for talent is also forcing companies to be more flexible. Many organisations are being faced with staff shortages. Adapting work is an important instrument to get people back in the labour market and keep them there"
Elke Geraerts: "In the US, the 'gig economy' is developing full speed ahead. This is an economy with many flexible and temporary jobs. I am not saying that we should completely overhaul the way in which our labour market works, but we need more mechanisms to offer people work that is tailored to their requirements. With a touch of creativity, employers can now do this."
Gretel Schrijvers: "An employee does not necessarily have to return to the same job. Talk to them to find something totally different, if necessary, either a job in your own company, or that of a partner. Your company should build an ecosystem for exchanging knowledge and, who knows, even people. This way, you can create an environment where everyone gets the opportunity to grow.”
Investing in well-being
Elke Geraerts: “A lot depends on the corporate culture and the place that welfare occupies in it. Companies that approach Better Minds at Work want to invest in welfare and are therefore already on the right track. Creating psychological safety, so that people can talk freely about everything is a basic requirement for successful reintegration."
Gretel Schrijvers: “Reintegration policy is an inseparable part of any general welfare and prevention policy” This type of policy is always a work in progress . A company that does this exercise and then sits back thinking they won’t need to do anything else for the next ten years will be sorely disappointed. Employers must keep their finger on the pulse and know what is going on in the workplace."
What role do other employees play in this story?
Gretel Schrijvers: "Training managers to keep in touch with absent employees is an interesting route. It is important that they do not focus on the medical reason for the absence, but rather on having a warm, positive conversation. All too often, we revert to black-and-white thinking, whereby someone is 100% fit to work or not fit at all. Well, no one is ever 100% fit. We all always have something on our minds."
Elke Geraerts: “Naturally, monitoring absenteeism and promoting well-being are tasks for the HR department. But other employees can also do their bit by acting as ambassadors. Find out who would like to play that role and then involve them as much as possible in your welfare policy. That way, you will nurture a positive corporate culture from the bottom up."