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Returning to Work After Disability Leave

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated July 28, 2020
|5 min read

Returning to work after a long term disability leave can present itself with a new set of complex circumstances. The new feelings, along with the lack of information out there on what to expect when returning from your leave can be challenging and feel foreign.

To help navigate this potentially new reality, I spoke with Mindfulness and Leadership Development Coach, Isabel Duarte, who shared her experiences returning from disability leave. These were some tips she shared to keep in mind for a successful return!

Keep the lines of communication open

It’s recommended for both the employee and employer to maintain contact throughout your time on leave. “It's fundamental that your employer be aware of where you are in your recovery, sharing your progress, or lack of it”, says Duarte.

Plan your return with your manager and keep them in the loop as much as possible. This will help build trust between you and the organization, and help your manager create a safe place for you to return.

It’s likely that you’ll have a staggered return to work over several week, before you begin to work full time. Communicating that plan with your manager beforehand is important!  

Get to know the new you

“A long term leave or a life-threatening illness can cause permanent changes, not just in your physical body, but also in your psyche,” says Duarte.

While it may not always be apparent at first, you may feel certain changes that you’ll have to assess and become aware of before going back to work. What you may have once valued and prioritized before your leave, could look totally different once you return. For example, different lifestyles or routines may be necessary in order to maintain your health and balance your workload.

Journaling, practicing mindfulness, and speaking with a therapist are all positive, healthy ways to develop a stronger sense of self-awareness, says Duarte.

Make sure you're ready

While there is no fixed legal rule to when you should return to work, it’s important to consider whether you can truly fulfill your essential job duties without causing any harm to your health.

“As frustrating as it may be to spend long boring days at home, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll be ready to resume working. A too-soon return could set back your recovery and set you up for failure, creating disappointment both for you and your company”, says Duarte.  

While your employer may be equally anxious to have you back, returning too soon can jeopardize your successful reintegration into the workplace.

Beyond having clearance from your medical team, make sure you're really feeling up to the challenge of returning to an active work routine, says Duarte.

Practice self-compassion

Like any new routine, adjusting can feel difficult, especially when shifting away from being home and not exerting yourself mentally or physically like you’re used to.

“Recognize this and give yourself permission to do what's best for you (if you need to take a few moments of quiet, find a meeting room, or ask to work from home some

days a week). As tempting as it may be to jump right back in, slow and steady will win the race. Start slow when you return to the office, taking on smaller portions of projects” says Duarte.

Once you start rebuilding your work strength, you’ll be able to take on more and more!

Use the accommodations provided

Keep a list of medical documents organized so you can easily share information with your organization and clarify what your health restrictions would look like upon return. Let them know what kinds of accommodations would be most effective to help you return, and participate in conversations when possible around solutions.  

When considering your accommodations, don’t be shy to ask for help, and use the support around you. “Your employer wants your return to be successful and should be flexible to make accommodations necessary (computer screens, different furniture, etc.), but don't forget to ask for help for the small things too, when needed,” says Duarte

Allow a reasonable amount of time for your employer to create accommodations and tools that meet your needs, and take advantage of all the resources around you.

Bring new tools

“It's possible that during your leave you were exposed to new coping mechanisms or new skills--Don't leave those behind! Bring whatever skills you learned in CBT, Occupational Therapy, or your new meditation habit with you as you re-enter the workplace,” says Duarte.

If you’re ever feeling guilt, shame, or stigma around your leave, remember that it’s an employer’s duty to create a fair and equitable workplace that accommodates for all different needs!

Stacy Pollack is a professional development specialist who helps employees and leaders build new skills through innovative programs and workshops. She’s worked with both established, and up and coming organizations, going through big business transformations. She is passionate about creating opportunities for people to advance in their career and regularly shares her insights on career building, human resources, and anything else related to workplace dynamics! Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or at

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