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ATD Blog

How Leaders Can Support an Employee Returning From Hiatus

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Professionals increasingly feel the need for a break. Work pressures, the pandemic’s lingering effects, and increasing demands for performance and profit in the face of rising inflation are just some of the factors leading to burnout and general work frustration. In these circumstances, many feel that a little time off can be a cure. Thus, there’s a growing acceptance for taking a professional hiatus. A recent LinkedIn survey found that 62 percent of employees have taken a career break. But absent a structure for resolving the issues causing burnout, a hiatus, no matter how welcome, is usually not the solution. If professionals burn out because they’re overworked, and return from a hiatus to the same busy environment, burnout will reoccur with even deeper effects. Structure, boundaries, and a heightened awareness of our habits and self-defeating behaviors are essential for professionals to identify what kind of work experience they really want—not just what they want to avoid.

So how can we help workers realize these insights? Coaching helps. A credentialed coach can work with a struggling professional to develop a growth map, providing weekly or biweekly calls that encourage productive action and codesigning a plan that’s goal oriented and the mentee feels invested in. Such engagement can also help honor the intention of a work hiatus even if anxiety or doubt starts to creep in.

I have seen the process firsthand. As a leadership coach credentialed by the International Coaching Federation, I spend a lot of time guiding professionals through change. Being strategic about the process creates the best environment for success, allowing individuals to make the most out of a gap in work. A big part of this success focuses on the transition and uncovers the motivations behind habits and behaviors so professionals become more growth-oriented and self-accountable.

Provide Structure

A growth map is a powerful tool for maximizing the benefits of a hiatus. Providing individuals with a visual guide to use at their own pace can serve as a motivator and a valuable resource once they return to the workplace. There may be certain areas of their careers that they want to focus on during their hiatuses and strategies they need to adopt when they return. The growth chart gives them boxes to check as well as a way of continually gauging their progression toward workplace strength and health.

Consistent check-ins also prove beneficial. Everyone needs an ally. A coach can be that person, especially to help guide and structure a break at the beginning and to ease an employee back into a role. A coach can also facilitate a plan for work check-ins. It can be jarring to be “on” for eight hours a day and then suddenly have no contact with reports or leadership. By presenting a process for updates, individuals on leave can still feel connected to the company culture.


Codesign Action Steps

Teamwork makes the dream work, even during breaks from work. A coach and professional can collaborate to design the action steps needed to achieve the individual’s goals and help them feel invested in moving toward these goals. The design may vary from one individual to another, based on their role and experiences, their reasoning for the hiatus, the habits or behaviors they want to change, and more. The key is to personalize action steps by framing achievable goals within the time they plan to be away from the office.

This question naturally arises: What does the employee need to facilitate this change? And who needs to be looped into these changes? Reflecting during their time away about what caused burnout or the need for leave can provide clarity as to what structural challenges need to be addressed by the company at large.


Honor the Intention

The key to a successful hiatus is establishing an intention and coming back to that intention regularly. If a professional is experiencing burnout, several different factors in their personal and professional lives may be contributing. While they don’t need to have every detail figured out, honoring the intention and validating personal experience can drastically change the experience away, and transition back to work. If someone is on parental leave, for example, consider how the organization can facilitate a safe return, and acknowledge the significant life change.

It’s a two-way street. HR leaders must also honor the intention of a hiatus. In doing so, we support the careers of our people and demonstrate that they matter. Are there concrete examples of how your organization can better support your employees’ day-to-day work? Can you be more receptive to the feedback of someone taking a hiatus? Can you foster constructive change? Please pay attention to those employees and honor their intentions. They very well might be the people you need most to meet your business output goals.

Welcome them back with enthusiasm and curiosity. Inquire about what they experienced on hiatus, and what they’re most excited about moving forward. Don’t shame or belittle people for taking a break. Instead, view their return as a reset of sorts—and determine together (or with a credentialed coach) what the employee’s new priorities, boundaries, and habits will be.

About the Author

Laura Weldy is a professional certified coach for new and established corporate women leaders and a frequent speaker on leadership development for employee resource groups.