Executive Education


13 Jul 2020

How employers can support their workers returning to work after COVID-19


Workers who return to work having recovered from COVID-19 may need to be supported by their employers for months afterwards. This is because the experience of COVID-19 may be traumatic and trigger a reassessment of priorities and what work means for their self-identity. It may also result in impaired physical capabilities or a debilitating post-illness fatigue that lasts for months after the virus has left them.

New research from Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics in collaboration with the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine, and published in the leading sociology journal ‘Work, Employment and Society’, has found that workers who become seriously ill mid-career craft the disruptive experiences of their illness into new developments of who they are and want to be. These changes to identity, including work identity, occur in an uneven fashion that is specific to each person during and after their treatment. They may also continue long after they have returned to work.

As well as a revised sense of their own physical capabilities to perform at their work, a key factor in how individuals decide to recraft their work identities to fit their altered sense of self is how colleagues and managers behave towards them after they return to work following their serious illness.  Feeling well-supported helps workers to successfully integrate their illness experience into a satisfactory revised work identity.

The research article, co-authored by Clive Trusson and Catherine Casey of the Centre for Work, Organization and Society and Diane Trusson of the University of Nottingham, illustrates how from an individual’s subjective perspective the ‘return to work’ is a complex matter that goes beyond HR arrangements for a phased return to work.

The study challenges the classic sick role theory that insists that people are either sick or fit for work. It does this by pointing to how those recovering from a serious illness may in reality float between the sick role and the fit role well into the future beyond any agreed period for a phased return to work. For example, they might attempt to work from home while still receiving ongoing treatment for their illness. Or, having officially returned to work, they might display to others their continuing frailty resulting from their illness. How management and colleagues relate to them as they negotiate their changed sense of self within the working landscape is important for them as they apply agency to decide on the direction their career takes.

As such, organisations need to make the effort to regularly check-in with those returning to work after a serious illness such as COVID-19 has proven to be for many working age people. This effort should go beyond the period of a phased return to work. In this way, the organization might offer ongoing support to an employee as they reflect on the trauma of their experience of having been unexpectedly afflicted by a serious illness and/or as they live and work while coping with their post-illness frailties.

The article referred to above was published online in ‘Work, Employment and Society’ journal on 8th July, 2020. It analyses the narratives of women who have re-crafted their careers following treatment for the serious illness of early breast cancer. Entitled ‘Reflexive Self-Identity and Work: Working Women, Biographical Disruption and Agency’, it can be accessed at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017020926441.