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Burnout: When to return to work after medical leave

How to know you are ready to return to work.

I work with people in my private practice as a psychologist that are on medical leave from work because they are in burnout. The question, “How will I know when I’m ready to return to work?” always comes up.

This is a good question because these people have often been exhausted for so long that they honestly aren’t able to tell whether they are fully recovered or not.

So, how can you tell you are ready to return to work? I have created a short list of ideas to help you determine the answer. The list is based on my experiences helping a large number of clients successfully return to work from medical leave.

Ensure you have achieved these 9 milestones, and you will be ready to go:

1. Have your physician’s consent.

It’s important that you not return to work until you’ve talked to your physician about your readiness to do so. Ask them for their opinion. Most physicians routinely work with patients on medical leave and so they have experience. They have seen people successfully return to work and they have seen others fail, so their opinion will likely be based on experience.

2. Have a reliably high energy level.

At some point during your recovery from burnout, your energy level will begin to feel great, but it won’t be fully dependable yet. You will have a couple of good days but then your energy level will crash again, and you will feel like they are back at square one. This is normal, in large part because you haven’t learned how to pace yourself yet.

During your good days, you may believe you are ready to go back to work and may begin planning your return, but acting on this impulse will be premature.

Your energy level will follow the same trend that you see in the stock market. Your energy level won’t follow a straight line. Some days it will be up and some days it will be down.

What I’m looking for, when I work with people recovering from burnout, is a steady upward improvement in their energy levels over several weeks or even months. When their energy level begins to be consistently high, and the variations from day to day to even out, it is a very good sign.

I had a client tell me recently tell me that his energy level was up. “That’s great,” I said. “What we’re looking for next is when you can report you have felt this way for two weeks in a row without experiencing a dip.”

When this happened, I said we were looking for his energy level to feel consistently high for four to six weeks without dipping. After this happened, we were ready to discuss how to design a gradual return-to-work program.

3. Be sleeping well through the night.

I encourage my clients to establish good sleeping habits before they return to work.

I ask them to ensure they are consistently sleeping through the night. I also ask them to get up at a regular time and go to bed at a regular time so their bodies aren’t surprised when they suddenly have to get up at 7 am and remain at the office until 5 pm. I also ask them to not be napping during the day.

Have problems sleeping? Address these before you return to work.

4. Be physically fit and free of untreated injuries.

Research documents that the single most important predictor of whether a person goes back into burnout, once they’ve recovered, is whether they maintain a regular exercise program.

I encourage my clients to establish a routine they can sustain before they consider returning to work. I suggest that they explore what they enjoy doing physically, once they have the energy for it, while on leave.

They might chose to attend a Jujitsu class or a yoga class a couple of days a week, or perhaps a pilates barre class at a local gym. Maybe a running group or a master’s swim club in more up your alley, but you’ve got to do something.

I ask my clients to establish a fitness routine they can sustain before they return to work. Work is demanding and you’re not likely to become fit after you return to work if you weren’t fit before you added work back into your schedule.

I also suggest people address any physical problems they might be experiencing before they return to work. You might need to work with a physiotherapist or a chiropractor to resolve a problem with your shoulder, calf muscle, or back while you are off work. I share this because a large percentage of people on medical leave have injuries that can be successfully treated if they receive adequate attention.

I 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, so they will be better equipped to take care of themselves over the longer-term, so they can avoid burning out again.

5. Be actively engaged with friends, family, and your community.

I ask my clients to become socially involved in pleasurable activities so that they are living balanced, active lives before they return to work. Again, it’s easier to explore a variety of options and find what works for you while you have the time, before you return to work.

I suggest people start going out with friends again while on leave. If they don’t belong to any organized groups, I suggest they might want to join a softball team, ski club, or book club to meet new people and to develop interests outside of the office.

Having somewhere pleasurable to go, with people you like, can play an important role in getting you out of the office on time, which can be critically important in avoiding another round of burnout.

6. Be able to read for three hours a day.

Make sure you can read an entire book from cover to cover, and recall what you have read, before you consider returning to work. And you need to be able to do this without depleting your energy.

Once people can read, I encourage them to explore whether they can sustain their attention on a task for eight hours a day without becoming exhausted. They might want to volunteer at a food bank or help weed the garden at their community centre to establish whether this is the case.

After all, you are going to put demands are your brain that are greater than these when you are at your desk, so make sure you are up to these simpler tasks before you consider returning to work.

7. Address issues that weigh heavy on you.

Is there something you need to address that’s adding stress to your life? Maybe you need to help a parent get into assisted living, or complete a separation agreement with an ex-spouse. You might need to work with a child psychologist to help your child resolve behavioural problems. These issues should be well on their way towards being addressed before you return to work because dealing with them will only be more difficult when you are back at your desk and your energy is divided.

8. Know it’s better to delay your return than to attempt and fail.

It’s important to establish that people are fully better, and not still in the process of recovering, before they return to work.

It’s important to have done the work upfront, to establish that you will be successful when you return to work, rather than to fail in the attempt. If you attempt to return to work too soon, you may find yourself back on medical leave within a few short months or even weeks.

I have written a post called On medical leave for burnout? Don’t return to work too soon if you want to explore this topic further.

9. Understand what caused you to burnout.

If you don’t understand what caused you to burnout, and you don’t know how to avoid burning out again, you might want to talk to a psychologist. Many of us are experienced working with people on medical leave, and we know that being on leave can be highly challenging to deal with on your own.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

In my experience, people know when they are ready to return to work, for the most part. However, if you’re not sure you are ready to return to work, seriously consider the possibility that you may not be.

— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

If you would like support, contact me to schedule an appointment or a free 15 minute consultation.


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Are you in Burnout? 10 Important Questions and Answers
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