The right way to return to work after a long illnessIs it really true that you should return to work as soon as possible after taking disability leave? We asked a senior manager who had to do it and a physiotherapist.Article by The MiNDSPACE team - 28 May 2019 - Read Time: 5 min
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An employee’s point of view

When Lyn-Anne Joubert was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was booked off for eight months to recover from a mastectomy and undergo chemotherapy.

‘I was lucky in that my position was kept for me and one of the assistant managers stood in for me while I was away. We have a very good relationship and she kept me up to date and consulted me whenever she had to make a big decision,’ Joubert says.

After five months, she felt strong enough to return to her job as senior manager at a major retailer for a few hours a day, three days a week. ‘I enjoy my work and missed the stimulation. After just a few hours back at the office, I felt stimulated and energised,’ she says. ‘When you’re away from work for so long, it feels as if the world has moved on without you when you return.’

Joubert underwent the last few chemotherapy treatments while working three days a week. ‘It was exhausting and I took a week off after the last session. Thereafter, I went back to work full-time, five days a week.’

‘It feels as if the world has moved on without you when you return.’

A physiotherapist’s point of view

‘The employer has a crucial role to play when it comes to the employee’s return-to-work plan and seeing to it that the steps are followed and implemented,’ says Lindsay Scott, a physiotherapist and the founder of Workability, which offers disability, injury-on-duty, return-to-work and managed care services via accredited practices around South Africa. Scott and her team specialise in musculoskeletal injuries, but much of her advice is relevant regardless of the injury or illness.

‘Once someone has lost their job, it’s even harder to rehabilitate them,’ Scott adds. ‘People tend to see their job as a source of self-confidence, self-worth and social status, and losing all of this can be extremely debilitating.’

This is why Workability follows a holistic biopsychosocial approach that doesn’t look only at the disorder, disease or disability and a person’s physical recovery. It also factors in:

  • Activities: This refers to the actual work someone is expected to do, such as lift and load boxes, and the extent to which they’ll be able to perform all the expected tasks again. Scott says it’s important to speak to the employee as well as the employer and supervisor or manager when determining what they are, as the parties’ expectations may differ.
  • Environmental factors: Someone’s lifestyle and where they live could severely impact the extent to which they can return to work and life. For example, a middle manager who lives in an apartment block with elevators who has become wheelchair-bound may be able to convert their car to drive themselves and to continue doing their job. If they, however, depend on public transport and live in a township, the challenges will be far greater.
  • Personal factors: According to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (commonly known as the ICF), these factors include gender, race, age, other health conditions, fitness, lifestyle, habits, upbringing, coping styles, education, profession, past life events and psychological assets. In other words, everything else that comes into play. For example, the person may be going through a divorce when they become ill or are injured, which could make it harder for them to cope emotionally.
‘The ideal approach is a graded return-to-work plan and not to expect an injured employee to return 100% on the first day.’

Returning to work

‘The ideal approach is a graded return-to-work plan and not to expect an injured employee to return 100% on the first day,’ says Scott. ‘When someone has been off work for an extended period, the person will not only need to build up the physical strength to cope at work, but also to be allowed to adjust to working a full day again and to the work stressors that come with it. Accommodated duties therefore have to be negotiated with the employer, so that the process is a win-win for all.'

Joubert can attest to this: ‘Chemo brain is a reality. Cognitively you’re not as sharp. The fact that my assistant manager had kept in touch with me definitely helped me to get up to speed again sooner.

‘Working still was tiring, though. The company was very accommodating and allowed me to leave early or to work from home when I was too tired. I also made a point of going to bed early and getting enough rest on weekends until I was my old self again. This took another three months.’

Four months after going back to work, she applied for another job in the company. ‘A serious illness forces you to re-evaluate your life and I moved into a role that was less stressful and more in line with my personal goals,’ Joubert says.

She also turned to colleagues who had also had cancer for support: ‘My closest colleagues, although sympathetic, haven’t experienced what I had, which sometimes made me feel lonely. I therefore sought out women in the company who’d had breast cancer too. Being able to talk to them helped a lot.’

‘In the case of injury, the employee should aim to return to work as soon as possible in a capacity that they will be able to cope with and that can benefit the organisation. The longer a patient takes to return to their normal work role and financial situation, the more chance there is of psychosocial barriers developing, which could delay their full rehabilitation,’ Scott says.

While being back in the saddle certainly is beneficial on a number of levels, experts agree that your recovery should remain your number-one priority. Take things slowly at first, and take on bigger challenges as you get stronger.


Old Mutual’s Well4Work programme offers more than four flexible, affordable income-protection options. It also supports proactive interventions to help employees and reduce chronic conditions, which includes individual case management. Consultants also help employers to submit claims and guide them through the claims process.

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