Managing the return to work: employees returning to work after long layoffs or job losses can experience a wide range of emotions, and EAPs are well positioned to help supervisors manage those emotions.
The majority of employees coming back to work after a prolonged layoff or period of unemployment will be enthusiastic and eager to hit the ground running. Bringing employees back to work can, however, present some unique challenges and risks that must be managed.
Any return to work requires a period of adjustment. Whether the absence is due to a layoff, a medical issue or a prolonged holiday, returning to work after being away for several weeks or months can be an anxious and even jarring experience. Most of us can relate to this, even if we've never been away from work for an extended period of time.
Consider what it feels like to return to work after a long holiday or vacation. The simple act of driving to work or entering your work area, something you have done hundreds or thousands of times, can feel slightly foreign and produce minor anxiety. You might feel "out of the loop" or worry that you have been "out of sight, out of mind" from co- workers. Perhaps your skills feel rusty; maybe you have simply forgotten some things.
Now, consider having been out of work for six months or even a year. Consider having left work not because of a vacation or an unanticipated illness, but because you were among those laid off. What would it feel like to return to work?
MANAGING EMOTIONAL RESPONSES
When the time comes to begin recalling employees who were laid off, there will likely be a sense of relief among both the organization's leaders and those being called back to work. Recalling former workers and hiring new ones are signs that indicate a significant improvement in the business climate, and the presence of additional employees may allow organizations to resume some work that had been put on hold. Employees going back to work will likely feel relieved from a financial standpoint and also excited that they can be productive and get their careers back on track.
Unfortunately, the emotions don't stop there. Employee recalls following layoffs typically are marked by complex professional, emotional and interpersonal responses that, unless managed carefully, can have a negative impact on employees and the workplace.
The emotions experienced by those recalled to work are similar to those unleashed by any positive change. There will be an initial period of anxiety and trepidation, followed by a "honeymoon" period during which the employee will be excited at the prospect of returning. In the more challenging phases following the honeymoon, the employee can undergo a "crash" as emotions may become less positive and can run at their highest. It is at this point where leadership can have the greatest influence on the success of re-entry into the workforce.
Supervisors should be aware of the emotional reactions they may see from employees returning from a lengthy layoff or period of unemployment. It's important for them to understand that, like any change, returning to work is a process that plays out over time. Employees may even exhibit some reactions that seem contradictory.
UNDERSTANDING EMPLOYEE BEHAVIORS
Employees returning to work may demonstrate one or more of the following job-related behaviors:
* Exhilaration, enthusiasm and high levels of motivation;
* An exaggerated desire to please or impress others;
* Anxiety and fear;
* Lack of confidence;
* Social anxiety, isolation or withdrawal;
* A reluctance to engage with others or take on special work, particularly if the work is highly visible;
* Problems with memory, concentration or focus;
* Increased sensitivity to criticism, discussions about performance, or talk of economic problems;
* Difficulty getting along with others;
* Anger, sarcasm or cynicism;
* Higher levels of absenteeism or medical complaints;
* Performance problems stemming from a variety of factors, including erosion of skills; and
* A distracted, fatigued or tired appearance.
Why would supervisors see such things? After all, these employees have been brought back to work, presumably because the economy has improved. What could possibly be the problem?
It can be helpful if supervisors try to understand their employees' experiences so they can better recognize potential problems and respond appropriately For example, employees who were laid off or lost their jobs during the downturn went through one of the most stressful and challenging experiences of their lives. Employers and supervisors won't know how they coped during this period. In most cases, employees will have coped well and will comport themselves appropriately However, it is common for employees to experience anger, resentment and a host of physical and emotional problems. These feelings may or may not have been resolved by the time they return to work.
Employees may feel a sense of embarrassment or shame following their time away from work. They may have a hard time facing their co-workers or engaging socially for fear that they will be viewed as "less than" or non-essential. Likewise, employees and supervisors who had continued working may feel uncomfortable around those returning, as though they had done something wrong or should feel guilty for continuing to work. This can result in anxiety and animosity for those who may now have learned to do more with less. In the worst cases, tension can develop between those who were laid off and those who weren't.
A loss of confidence is normal when returning to work--the "use-it-or-lose-it" principle and "disuse syndrome" are readily seen. Skills can erode over time, employees can simply forget pieces of their work, and jobs can change in ways that require new skills. Confidence may be particularly low when employees haven't been working at all during the layoff. Supervisors may have to regain an appreciation of the skills of the returning employee. Coaching, training, and/or the passing of time are usually needed to refresh both skills and working relationships.
Deconditioning can occur over time when employees are not challenged by daily job demands. Some employees may experience bouts of fatigue and burnout upon their return to work, so a period of adjustment to the physical and mental demands of daily work may be necessary.
Compounding the need to "shake off the rust" are changes in leadership and organizational structures. Employees returning to their former jobs may be greeted by new work duties, new functional areas, or new leadership. These changes can complicate their efforts to manage their emotions.
Employees returning to work may also be experiencing financial problems stemming from their time away from work. They may be anxious or distracted, and they may need to conduct personal business during work hours. They may be resentful toward their employer for laying them off in the first place, and may see this as the cause of their financial problems. Supervisors should be alert for signs of possible financial concerns and should also consider that employees' motivations for working may have shifted during the time away from work. Whereas employees were once engaged in the company's success and their own career advancement, they may now be motivated merely by the need to earn money
Clearly, employees returning to work after a period away will experience a diverse and complex set of emotions and behaviors. Regardless of the nature of an employee's response, it's important for supervisors to be prepared to assist workers through the adjustment period.
SHARING TIPS WITH SUPERVISORS
How can supervisors and business leaders effectively manage employees who are returning to work following a prolonged layoff or job loss? Following are some suggestions EA professionals can share to help them through this uncertain time.
First, the fundamentals of good leadership stay the same. Communication, empathy, predictability and visibility are all critical.
Employees who have experienced hardship so the company can survive are, in many ways, organizational heroes. Ask them how they wish to be welcomed back and/or introduced. Some employees are more comfortable than others with public displays of gratitude. Acknowledge their work histories, highlight their sacrifices, and show an appreciation for what they will bring to the workplace.
Spend some time talking with each employee returning from a layoff. Don't intrude into their private lives, but show an interest in their return. Acknowledge the difficulties and anxiety they may experience and try to gauge their emotional response to returning to work. Referrals to the employee assistance program should be routine.
Open lines of communication with existing employees before the returning employees arrive. Discuss the impact on the teams and their work. Educate them about the difficulties that can accompany a return from a layoff or job loss and encourage them to be supportive and engaged with new and returning employees. Make sure that all workers understand the state of the business, the rationale for employee recalls, the goals for the future, and the expectations for employees' work and conduct.
Address work group conflicts directly If any tensions exist (for any reasons), take appropriate action as soon as possible to resolve the problem.
Assess the need for coaching or training of returning employees. Resources such as mentors, trainers, and the EAP should be considered.
Set clear performance expectations and goals for returning employees, but be sure to allow ample time for the "settling in" process. Understand that anxiety and skills loss may impede performance in the short term. Do not, however, insulate returning employees from challenging work or give them only menial tasks. Hardiness is not built by avoiding possible stress.
Coach returning employees to avoid isolation, stay engaged, and be prompt and attentive. Emphasize to them that things have changed since they left and that they should be ready to learn, show interest in what happened during their absence, start gradually and pace themselves, communicate openly with leadership, and seek guidance often.
Acknowledge to yourself that you may lack trust in new and returning employees and be ready to provide them with reasonable challenges and opportunities for success soon after they start.
Take care not to exploit a returning employee's heightened motivation or exaggerated desire to please. Give reasonable amounts of work early on and be conscious of the risk of burnout.
Be aware of the indicators of deteriorating performance, personal problems and workplace violence. Identify straggling employees as early as possible.
Make frequent EAP referrals, particularly when problems begin to arise. Employee assistance professionals should be consulted and involved at every phase of the recall process in order to support both supervisors and employees.
STRONG ENGAGEMENT = GOOD BUSINESS
At the most fundamental level, employee performance is critical to business success. The process of laying off workers and recalling them when the economy begins to improve can challenge employees' sense of engagement and threaten business performance at a time when organizations can least tolerate it.
When returning employees are handled well, significant problems should be atypical. Supervisors and business leaders who focus on the best interests of returning employees will go a long way to mitigate risks. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve business success by ensuring employees have a positive re-entry and remain engaged in the long term.
by John C. Pompe, Psy.D., SPHR
John Pompe is manager of disability and behavioral health programs at Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Illinois. As a member of Caterpillar's Corporate Medical Department, he is responsible for the global EAR disability management, and a variety of behavioral programs. He can be reached at email@example.com.