So far, our focus in this space is encouraging us to enhance the culture and relationships within our four walls at work. But we are forgetting a critical and valuable employee population that is outside our walls; those on a medical leave of absence.
The research is consistent in showing that the longer someone is off work, the less likely it is they will ever return to work. One of the major reasons this happens is because of the lack of social connection that occurs when someone is no longer working.
I manage disability claims for mental health diagnosis for a Fortune 500 company. It’s a constant struggle to help these employees get back to work as many face stigma and shame, sometimes even malingering, to avoid returning to work. However, when they do return, I consistently hear that they are shocked at how rewarding the experience has been. They tell me how valued they felt as co-workers would tell them “We missed you so much” “Its so great to have you back” “Our team is so happy you are with us again”. Their teams expressed gratitude for having them back to work. And the employee felt connection and appreciation---and had no idea how much they needed it.
Current return to work efforts focus on medical and safety concerns, collaboration with doctors and supervisors, accommodations and ways to improve productivity. We trust their physician is treating the medical condition. But medical treatment, alone, is not helping employees with chronic illnesses get back through the work doors. When an employee is off work for months, they are no longer experiencing the social connection they once had. It often begins a downward spiral of isolation, withdrawal, and hopelessness.
What if employees who were off work on a medical leave of absence were given the opportunity to be engaged in gratitude? Helping our employees practice gratitude could 1) improve mood and depression 2) help people feel more positive and empowered 3) allow employees to stay connected and engaged while off work 4) help them deal with their illness 5) foster a sense of connection to their employer and their teams.
What if these employees were allowed to voluntarily sign up for a more holistic return to work program? What if we taught them how to use gratitude journals? Or thank you letters? Or how to spend time mindfully being gracious for what they have? How might this help their recovery? What kind of reciprocity might unfold as the employer helps in the recovery of their employee? How might this benefit their organization as they return to the workforce? Imagine the value on investment this might bring.