We are pleased to share an article entitled “Navigating the return: the essential role of executive coaching to assist patients in returning to work” written by Schira Lillis.
In today’s dynamic work environment, individuals are increasingly looking for flexibility and a wide range of benefits from their employers. Enabling employees to take intentional breaks and leaves of absence is seen as a key tool for fostering loyalty, work-life balance, and overall job satisfaction. However, when the leave is unexpected, both employers and employees struggle to respond to the new set of circumstances. Unlike planned breaks, medical leave often arises out of the blue and requires a nuanced response. This article delves into the issues that a patient faces in preparing for a return to the workforce following a medical leave, and the role that the coaching profession can play in easing this transition.
The case for patient coaching
Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of taking deliberate breaks and leaves of absence to prioritize personal growth and explore various aspects of life. From savoring the joys of travel adventures to embracing the transformative journey of parenthood—and even pursuing further education as an adult—each break has been a purposeful choice that has enriched my perspective. These experiences have ignited my advocacy for corporate programs that facilitate leave opportunities for employees of all genders. Such flexible benefits empower individuals to embark on fulfilling new ventures, while ensuring a seamless transition back into the workplace.
However, the experience of returning from medical leave introduced an entirely unforeseen challenge—one that caught me off guard. Often unexpected or allowing little time for preparation, absences for medical reasons can leave behind a trail of unfinished tasks, unmet client needs, and colleagues struggling to handle unfamiliar responsibilities. I personally encountered this ordeal following an unfortunate accident during a routine dog walk, which resulted in multiple broken bones that required several painful weeks of recovery.
The coaching mindset teaches you to look at any situation as a potential opportunity, and thus can bring a positive attitude which is so valuable for patient recovery. As a patient, you spend a lot of time waiting. Medical professionals are over-stretched, and the lack of resources has become all too evident since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. To take my mind off the list of stressors piling up, I decided to observe what was happening both around and inside of me.
The patient must deal with a range of emotions — relief that they are being taken care of, frustration at being taken away from their regular life, concern over their path to full recovery, and discomfort of adding medical visits as a regular feature to their new existence. On top of this, they may worry about how they might return to their work roles, and feel distress over missed targets and the likely resulting loss of income or bonuses. In many countries worldwide there is no guarantee that the patient’s job will be there when they return, so these individuals may also be facing the search for new employment as soon as they have recovered.
Both the patient and their medical team need to collaborate effectively to help the individual through this difficult period. Many recognize that it is important to ensure that medical professionals receive the support they need (Patrick 2023). The patient, however, is often left to fend for themselves.
For the patient, much of the healing time may be spent alone in a hospital bed, or at home. This can be a trying and isolating time. While a therapist may help deal with the inevitable mixed emotions, they are ill-equipped to help the patient plan their reintegration into the workplace. An executive coach can make a huge difference in preparing the individual, boosting the potential of their successful return.
Driving positive outcomes for patients returning to work
It is well-recognized that a positive attitude and outlook helps in the medical recovery process and in protecting against negative outcomes (Yanek et al., 2013). By assisting a patient to anticipate and tackle potential obstacles they may face, a coach can help smooth the path to returning to employment.
Over the months I spent recovering, I met with all kinds of medical professionals, but wondered what else I could be doing to help not just my physical recovery, but also my mental preparation. As a certified executive coach, I have access to a wealth of resources and most importantly a community of coaches with whom I am proud to have trained and worked. I was able to tap into this network to help me address my worries, and map out a plan of action to come back to work mentally stronger and more resilient than before my accident.
Others are not so lucky. It must not be underestimated the challenge returning after sick leave can pose. Many companies recognize that mothers (and fathers) returning from parental leave will need a time of adjustment. Some even provide mentorship or coaching to help a new mother settle back in. Yet for patients returning from another kind of medical leave, the experience can be quite unsettling and support is often lacking or missing altogether. Having been encouraged to “take the time you need” while out sick, on your return you may quickly feel under pressure to perform. This puts added strain on the patient, potentially undermining their self-confidence.
Just as coaching can mitigate the risk of burnout among executives under stress (Bittinger 2023), it can also help a patient avoid relapse after returning to work. The coach through active listening can identify the patient’s concerns, role play conversations the coachee might have with colleagues to re-establish relationships, and prepare the individual for different scenarios they may face.
After my experience, I have spent considerable time thinking through and researching the invaluable role the coaching profession can play to help with patient recovery and return to the workforce. There are a number of actions coaches may explore:
Encourage the organizations with whom you are working to consider offering coaching support to employees returning from leave. It not only would facilitate effective reintegration of high-performing executives, avoiding potential pitfalls, but would also send a message to other employees of how the company truly values its people.
If you are working with medical practitioners, consider joining forces with them to offer patients a full range of rehabilitation options. Thus, personalized coaching could help bridge the gap between patient and professional roles for the individuals concerned.
Design re-insertion coaching packages for individuals ending medical leave, and be vocal about the benefits individuals can obtain from being accompanied early on in their return to the workplace
Assist your “patient” clients by addressing the physical and emotional aspects of returning to work after a medical leave, and exploring how to mitigate the potential impact of absence on skills, confidence and professional identity.
Support your coachees as they rebuild relationships with co-workers and their professional networks, while also acknowledging the impact of the new shift in their work-life balance.
It is important to recognize that an individual returning from medical leave has likely changed through their experience. This may not be at first evident to their employer. With the help of coaching, individuals can reenter the workforce stronger and more resilient than before, leading to increased productivity, job satisfaction, and overall well-being.
Questions to consider
What challenges are you concerned about facing on your return to work? What might you do to avoid or diminish these challenges?
What strengths or skills can you draw upon to navigate your return?
How do you imagine your ideal work environment in your first few weeks or months? What is most important to you?
How would you define success in terms of your return to work?
What support might you call on to help you settle back into your role? Are there additional resources that you might need to help you settle in?
Reflecting on your time away from work, what lessons might you bring with you that will help you be more resilient going forward?
Have you specific goals for your return to work? What steps might you take to achieve these?
How might you integrate new self-care practices into your work routine?
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