Someone you care about is reluctant to return to work

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about is reluctant to return to work.

This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.

What do you notice?

You notice someone you care about appears to be reluctant to return to work. Maybe you notice they increasingly avoid the topic or withdraw in general. Perhaps they’ve complained about disrupted sleep or strong physiological responses in their body, such as shortness of breath or muscle pains. In conversation, they might express worries about returning to work and appear overwhelmed by those worries. You might also notice fluctuating moods as they get closer to the return-to-work date.

What do you need to understand?

Having feelings of dread before returning to work can be normal – it’s a change one must adjust to after being off work. Change is always uncomfortable. However, if the dread about returning to work appears to be showing up in behaviours and thoughts on a regular basis, you should address those concerns. If someone was off work because of an injury, health issue or even as the result of a pandemic, returning can create anxiety in them. If someone was off work due to injury or health concerns, they might fear others will judge them for taking that time off. They might fear they won’t be able to navigate the job if their abilities have been reduced. Or, they might fear other unknowns, such as a new routine, leader or exposure to others while in a pandemic. Go here for more information about having a supportive conversation with someone you care about who appears anxious.

What do you need to consider?

While work often defines the way we feel about ourselves and our identity, returning to a place of work after a leave for an unplanned event can be frightening. It’s frightening because a return to work that doesn’t go well can impact our confidence, creating additional stress. A lot can ride on a return to work, as work represents so many facets of life – security, routine, relationships with others, identity and perceived value in life. Keep in mind the potential risks an individual might perceive about returning to work in order to support them.

Engaging in a supportive conversation

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice 

Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be  happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I’ve noticed you avoid the topic of return to work when it comes up. Are you feeling okay about returning?”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person is open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen  

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m hearing that you feel [people will judge you, afraid you won’t be able to work the same way as before, worried about unresolved conflicts, or the unknowns about returning to work are worrisome]. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Highlight

Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

 Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:

  • “Thank you for sharing these concerns. I respect your persistence in addressing life challenges.”

Identify

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need to address [feelings of fear about returning to work], so how can I best support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit  on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your abilities and  available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do to create change in the other’s life.

Create

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

 Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to address to create some change in your life. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets  your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: