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There may be a time when sickness requires you to take extended time off work. Whether you have been physically or mentally unwell, it’s important to have a plan before rushing back to full-time duties.

Developing a personalised ‘return to work’ plan gives you a sense of control over the process and allows you to think through what combinations of hours, duties and support will best meet your needs as you continue your recovery. It will also help you manage your own expectations, and those of your customers, as you ease back into your business.

The benefit of work to recovery

It’s a common misconception that you need to fully recover before returning to work. However, research has shown that in most cases early return to work can play an important part in overall recovery, in particular, if you are experiencing a mental illness. There is also clear evidence that the longer you are away from work, the more difficult it can be to return.

Work promotes recovery by:

  • Daily structure and routine
  • A sense of meaning and purpose
  • Increasing confidence and self-esteem
  • Opportunities for social connection and support
  • The key is putting the right support in place early so that your return to work is not overwhelming

Tips for planning your return to work

Talk to your doctor. Get advice on a realistic return to work timeline and recovery phase that reflects your health. Your plan should provide enough time to allow you to recover and not push yourself to get there.

Who can support you to develop your plan? Aside from your doctor, you could include other treatment professionals such as a mentor, business advisor or someone who has been looking after your business while you have been away.

Decide what hours will be manageable. You may want to start with a couple of hours and gradually increase them each week. Factor in regular breaks, particularly if you’re finding it difficult to concentrate, and flexible working times so that you can attend health appointments.

Focus on what you can do. Identify what duties feel manageable initially and consider increasing these each week until you feel ready to resume your full workload.

Delegate where possible. Divide up tasks that you may initially find stressful or overwhelming, for example, meeting new customers or administrative duties.

Consider any work-space adjustments. You may choose to work from home or in your office, or a combination of locations. Do you need to make any adjustments to your work area, for example moving your desk to a quieter area or change the lighting? Do you need any equipment modifications?

Identify potential risks. Talk to your mentor or business advisor about what you can do differently to reduce any work-related stressors that may have contributed to your mental ill-health or physical condition.

Communicate your ‘return to work’ plan. Talk to any employees, customers and suppliers. Remember, it is not necessary for you to disclose why you’ve been away, unless this is important to you.

Identify your support people. Meet with them regularly to discuss how you are doing and set realistic goals for yourself. It’s important to choose support people that you can call on when you need practical assistance or reassurance. Consider a friend or family member, your doctor, psychologist, or your industry association.

Update your plan to reflect your progress. Ensure your hours, tasks and supports continue to meet your needs as you recover. Remember, this plan should support your mental health so if the plan isn’t working, change it. It’s also important to include in your plan what to do if things don’t improve or they get worse.

Review your plan. Meet with your doctor and other support people at the end of the designated period.

This story is sponsored by Ahead for Business. 2020 was one of the most stressful years on record for business owners, their managers, employees and families. If you or someone close to you is experiencing challenging emotions, please visit aheadforbusiness.org.au The site contains practical strategies and tools to assist people to regulate their feelings, and also provides access to a range of mental health resources.

Ahead for Business is an initiative of Everymind and funded by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

If you are in need of support for your mental health, services are available 24/7:

Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

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Clare Loewenthal

Clare Loewenthal

Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.

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