As a psychologist, I sometimes see people return to work from medical leave too soon. When this happens, their efforts fail and they end up back on leave again.
In both cases when this has occurred in my practice, my clients said they felt “better” and were ready to get back to their desks. They believed they had been treated well by their companies and owed it to their firms to become productive again.
In both cases, I perceived that the individuals were returning to work too soon and said so. It’s hard to believe your psychologist, who is advising you based on experience, however, when you feel “good.” And when you feel guilty about staying off work when you know your co-workers are carrying your work load in your absence. And, perhaps, when you don’t want to spend more time thinking about why you ended up on leave in the first place, and what you’re going to do about the problem over the longer-term.
As a general rule, especially when someone has been on long-term medical leave, which was the case in both the examples I have described, it’s important to establish that the person is indeed “better,” and not simply in the early stages of recovery, when their energy levels are beginning to return but aren’t fully dependable yet.
I think about people’s energy levels as following the same sort of trend that you see in the stock market over time. Energy levels don’t follow a straight line. Some days they are up, and some days they are down. What I’m looking for, when I work with someone who is recovering from burnout, is an upward trend in their energy levels over a period of several weeks that is sustained, rather than the more dramatic changes that can occur from day to day.
I had a client tell me recently that his energy level is up. “That’s great,” I said. “What we’re looking for next is when you can report that you have felt this way for two weeks in a row.” In both cases when my clients returned to work too quickly, they had had only a couple of days in a row in which they felt better before they rushed back to work.
When my clients have been off work for several months as a result of burnout, I encourage them to establish that they feel generally “good to go” for about six weeks before they start to think about returning to their deks. Before they go back, I also encourage them to have established a regular exercise program that they will be able to sustain over the longer term.
Research has shown that the single most important predictor of whether a person goes back into burnout is whether they maintain a regular exercise program. So I work to establish this with my clients before they return to work following medical leave.
I suggest that my clients determine what they enjoy doing physically, and sign up for programs, while on leave. Maybe they want to attend a yoga class a couple of days a week, or a Jujitsu class, or pilate barre classes at a local gym. I want them to have established a basic level of physical fitness that they can sustain before they return to work.
Why? Because work is demanding. And you are less likely to get physically fit after you return to work if you weren’t fit before you returned to work.
I also ask my clients to fully address any physical problems they might be experiencing before they return to work. I encourage them to work with a physiotherapist to ensure that the problem they have with their shoulders, or their calf muscles, or their back, are resolved while they are off work. I suggest that things aren’t going to get easier once they return at work. They aren’t going to suddenly find more time than they have had while on leave.
I also want my clients to experience what it feels like to take really good care of themselves, and to like being in their bodies, before they enter the work world again.
Similarly, I encourage my clients to establish good sleeping habits before they return to work. Said in other words, I ask my clients to get up at a regular time and go to bed at a regular time so that their bodies are not surprised when they suddenly start changing things up when they return to work.
What else? I ask my clients to get socially involved in pleasurable activities so that they are living balanced, actives lives before they return to work. I ask them to start going out with friends again. I also encourage them to establish that they are capable of sustaining their attention for eight hours a day without becoming exhausted before they return to work. I encourage them to read challenging books, for example, that engage them, so they know they can concentrate for prolonged periods of time.
A supervisor once told me he believes whole-heartedly in people taking medical leave from work, so long as the work they are doing while away from the office is as important as going to the office. I believe this, too.
In sum: I encourage my clients to ensure they are taking really good care of themselves, both physically and emotionally, before they consider returning to work. And that they will be able to maintain these lifestyle changes while at work before they return.
In my experience, it’s a good idea to put in the work upfront to ensure that you will be successful when you return to their desk following a medical leave before you consider going back. After all, if you return to work too soon, you may find yourself back on medical leave within a few short months.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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