Keep in mind that a prolonged absence usually goes hand in hand with feelings of anxiety, fear of being judged and concern about performance.

Psychologist Louise Saint-Arnaud has some advice: "There are two parts to any successful return to work: the employer has to get involved well in advance of the employee's first day back and the employee must understand that they have a key role to play".

Here are 4 things you can do to handle the emotional roller coaster that can come with an extended sick leave and ease your employee back into work.

1. Stay in touch with the employee while they're off work

Before an employee goes on leave, ask if it would be okay to call from time to time to check in. If the employee-manager relationship isn't optimal, another colleague or supervisor that the employee is more comfortable with could do this instead.

  • It's also good to enlist the support of other employees right from the beginning; they may, for example send flowers or words of encouragement.
  • On the first phone call, simply find out how the employee is doing and remind them to fill out the insurance forms to avoid delays, for example. 
  • If the employee seems interested, take the opportunity to provide them with information on resources they may find helpful. Again, you could also ask if they'd be okay with an occasional call to see how they're doing.
  • When the employee shows signs of feeling better, you could start giving them news about the office, invite them to get-togethers or special events and start planning their return to work.

2. Solve the problems that led to the burnout

It's important to understand the problems that led to the burnout so solutions can be planned or implemented by the time the employee returns to work. Some ways you can make an employee's return to work a little smoother is to modify their tasks, lighten their work load, adjust their schedule or assign them to a new position.

3. Plan a gradual return to work

A gradual return to work means gradually increasing the number of days worked or tasks to be accomplished based on the person's ability. The approach is known for positive outcomes and has the advantage of strengthening the employee's health.  During this phase, focus on getting the employee back to 100% rather than on their performance objectives.

4. Welcome the employee back

A positive attitude will help make the employee's return to work quite a bit easier. In the first few days, people working directly with the employee could use positive reinforcement by focusing on the employee's qualities and skills to strengthen their self-esteem-something that will have taken a blow during the burnout. Why not designate a colleague to support the employee in the early days? Keep the golden rule in mind: everyone should treat the returning employee as they'd want to be treated.

An ounce of prevention...

If you notice or hear about employees who are beginning to show warning signs of burnout, meeting with them right away may help reduce their time off or eliminate their need to take a leave altogether.

One last piece of advice: Think about offering mental health training in the workplace so everyone understands that they play a key role in preventing a burnout and in helping their colleagues adjust after their return to work.