There can be a lot of anxiety when you return to work after a disability leave.
That’s normal: After all, there’s a lot to navigate when you get back to your job, says Randi Frank, an HR Consultant based in Louisville, Kentucky. Here’s what you should do to reintegrate.
PLAN YOUR RETURN
There’s a good chance that you may have to fill out some forms and that you may need special accommodations. Frank suggests you call your supervisor and have them contact HR. “If you're going to need an accommodation, you're going to have to get documentation from your doctor that says you can do most of the duties in your job description. Or that you can do the job but that you will need assistive devices.”
That will allow your employer to start planning for your return and making any changes that might be necessary to your job or workspace.
CONSIDER A GRADUAL RETURN
Many employers offer the option of a graduated return to work to help you reintegrate back into the office slowly over weeks or months. This might allow you to work a few days, a week or work partial days at first to see how working again will affect your health and to ease your return.
“It's hard to make that transition,” says Frank, “and doing part-time work or working a couple of days a week is always a good way to transition back.” But she cautions that not all employers will be able to accommodate a gradual return.
Ask your manager and HR whether a graduated return to work might be possible and work with your doctor to figure out what would work best for you. Often, you’re still eligible for partial disability insurance payments if you’re only able to work part-time, so contact your insurer to see if partial payments can continue during the transition as well.
REACH OUT TO COLLEAGUES
One critical step when you return is to reconnect with your colleagues in order to get up to speed and rebuild your relationships.
“You need to be proactive and ask about the projects you were involved in when you left,” Frank says. “What happened while you were gone? Are there new employees on the project? Did they get such and such done? Did they get the award for this contract?”
Frank also suggests you sit down with your supervisor and figure out what projects you’re going to be working on and whether anything has changed around processes or documentation.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
If you returned to work with lingering health problems and need disability accommodations, it’s important that you know your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“If you are partially disabled but can still do a major portion of the essential functions of your job, you have the right to ask for accommodation under the ADA,” says Frank. “Putting a speaker system onto your phone so that you can hear better is an accommodation. Having a desk and chair that is more appropriate for your disability is an accommodation.”
But the ADA applies to different sized companies differently. Very small companies with two or three employees might be able to claim that some accommodations are an undue hardship whereas much larger companies have greater responsibilities to disabled employees.
Accommodations can also involve changes to your job like being able to work from home for a portion of the week, having your colleagues lift and carry things for you, or getting administrative help with one portion of your job.
If you feel your employer is not fulfilling its obligations under the ADA, you should try to work with management and HR. If that doesn’t work, another option is to contact a lawyer and see if you have grounds for a lawsuit.
WORK WITH HR
If your company is big enough to have dedicated Human Resources professionals on staff, they will be the experts on how to return you to your job to maximize your success. If you encounter problems or have questions, keep them in the loop or ask for their advice.
Frank encourages people to reach out to HR if they experience difficulties getting workplace accommodations or discriminatory comments.
“Tell them about it because they know if the process is not being done properly and you're being discriminated against,” she says. In all these instances, communication will be key.