Ensure you can succeed before you go back.
I work with people on medical leave for burnout in my private practice as a psychologist. In my experience, the majority of people don’t return to work before they are ready. Sometimes, however, people chomp at the bit to get back to the office and return too soon.
When you’re not ready, chances are high you’ll be unsuccessful in you attempt to return to work. You may also end up with a frustrated employer. It’s far better to remain on leave until you are fully recovered and can meet the demands of both your personal life and your professional life without struggling.
7 reasons people return to work too soon
Some of the reasons people share when they want to return too soon include:
- I’ve been away too long and it’s not reasonable to ask for more time.
- I will do irreparable harm to my career if I stay away longer.
- I will lose my job if I don’t return now.
- My friends are doing my work and it’s not fair to ask them to shoulder the load.
- I’ve been treated well by my employer but I can’t ask them for more.
- I’d like to return to work before my delivery date.
- I’d like to return to work before my retirement date.
There is a substantial argument behind all these reasons to want to return to work after you’ve been away for a significant period of time, but none of these reasons mean you are ready to go back.
Recovery takes time
Most of my clients share they believe they have to return to work sooner rather than later at some point during their recovery. We discuss their rationale, and then we talk about why they’re not ready to go back. After this discussion, most accept they can’t control how much additional time they will need because they can’t force their minds and bodies to recover at a faster pace.
Some people try to muscle their way through using the same techniques that led them to burnout. They say they will simply push through. These individuals appear to have not garnered a full understanding of why they burned out. When your approach is to simply push through, it’s no surprise when your attempt to return to work is unsuccessful.
Details in the story that follows have been altered to protect privacy.
Too early an attempt can result in failure
Simon told me his physician had said he was ready to return to work, and that I should make the same recommendation. Simon was far from being ready to return to his desk, so this assertion surprised me. Simon wasn’t exercising or eating healthy. He couldn’t socialize with friends or family because doing so left him exhausted. He was sleeping 12 hours a night and napping mid-day. He was still coming to my office in sweat pants, and saying he didn’t have the energy to shower. He had told me during his previous appointment that he didn’t have the stamina to fly across the country to visit family.
Simon later shared, after he had returned to work, that his physician had not told him he was ready. He said he believed he had been away from the office for too long, however, and that his career would suffer if he didn’t get back.
Fortunately, Simon was able to finish his recovery while at his desk, but he said he would have recovered more quickly if he had remained on leave for another three months and allowed his mind and body to further heal.
What happened to Simon? He had to fall back to working a three-day work week for several months. Fortunately his employer was supportive, but many can’t offer this accommodation.
Another reason people sometimes try to return to work too soon can be that they have reached a point in their recovery where they feel the best they have ever felt, and so believe they are at their best. They may have been in burnout for so long that, when their energy levels begin to increase, they honestly believe they are in great shape.
A failed attempt is hard on everyone
When you are on leave, your employer has figured out how to survive without you. They may have brought in temporary help or divided your work load among your colleagues. Whatever they’ve done to cope with your absence, they’re managing and they don’t expect to see you any time soon.
When you say you’re ready to return to work, your employer removes the coping strategies that have been in place during your absence. They believe you’re returning on a full-time basis and don’t expect you to leave again.
If your return to work fails, which I have seen happen, your employer becomes vulnerable again. The second time this happens, they may feel set up because they have to repeat the process of figuring out how to cope without you.
Damage can be done
You will likely do more damage to your career if you attempt to return to work too soon, rather than remaining on leave until you are ready to go back, however long this may take. If you attempt to return and fail, you may lose credibility. One leave may be acceptable in your employer’s eyes, but a failed first attempt to return to work may be a stretch.
The bottom line? Do what you need to do to prepare. Don’t return to work until you are ready.
— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta