Back to work after illness

A day and a half off work after being ill, on my duty week. I doubt this is going to look pretty when I get back. At low intensity of work it is manageable, but it was shaping up as quite busy when I went home.

When I return I expect to find a certain level of chaos, but here’s an important thing – the chaos isn’t real. 

Imagine you go for a swim in reasonably choppy waters. As you wade in you are buffeted by the strong tides, and as you get deeper you are hit with the swell a few times. Do you drown? Assuming you are a competent swimmer, the answer is no. You get used to the swell, you start to swim so the waves don’t affect you so much. Try to just float in place will leave you disorientated by the swell, and it won’t feel you’ve got anywhere. You could leave, but then you’ll get buffeted as you get out of the water, and the swell and tides will still be there.

Coming back to work is the same. The first waves of work will be panicky “OMG” moments. If I try to just tread water and deal with what I’ve missed then it’ll leave me bring disorientated. I need to move on and push forward, not getting overwhelmed by what’s waiting. 

First off, I need to review my calendar. What appointments and meetings do I have? How much available time do I have? Meetings that looked important before, are they still necessary now? What about over the next two weeks? How much spare time is building up? I know off the top of my head that the next two days were pretty much booked up before I went off sick. It’s not likely I’ll have much spare time before end of week. In some ways though that may help. It’ll be easier to prioritise work in that fashion, compared to having a glut of spare time. I don’t want to get too distracted with trying to juggle all the priorities and decisions people will come to me with in the first hour. It sounds counter intuitive, but less spare time makes it easier to prioritise and make decisions. So calendar review is the first task.

My next task is to empty my email inbox. This doesn’t mean totally dealing with every email. It means prioritising follow-up (flagging) and putting them in the right folders. I can only deal with so much so I don’t want to overburden myself (and risk further illness).

All this needs to happen in the first twenty to thirty minutes. I know off the top of my head that my appointments start from 9am, so everything needs to be set to fall back into the normal routine as quickly as possible – start swimming almost as soon as I am in the water.

At this stage most of my team will be in, I’ll have the opportunity to do a round robin and see how staff are going. This isn’t about discussing caseloads at this point. It’s merely tracking how they are doing. I believe that teams reflect the state of their leader. If the leader is ill, then in some respects, I anticipate some signs of disorder or drag. The extent if this depends on length of illness, but also training and state of mind of the team. I’m co fide the in my team, so I’m hoping despite the pressures they’ll be doing pretty well, but there a lot of factors. So I want to be able to assess how the team is feeling, gauge it’s sense of cohesiveness. I need to be disciplined to prevent a flurry of requests for decisions there and then, but I also need to be responsive to any anxieties or worries. Most of all, they’ve got to feel I’m ready to deal with whatever needs attending to.

I’ll also want to catch up with the team leader that’ll have been covering in my absence. I’ll just get the brief lowdown – the profession is rife with story telling (excessively describing case history rather than case situation). My colleague will have made a number of decisions in my absence. I’ll want to know what those are, but under no circumstances will I question them. I have little time for people that second guess my decisions without context, and I give my colleagues the same courtesy. My colleague will have had to take on responsibility for my team at short notice, so it would be unfair and unprofessional to query ‘why’ in this scenario. It’s also a form of procrastination to avoid decisions that need to be made in the future.

There are some bureaucratic issues to resolve, but better to get them done. So personal leave request. I’m also considering an OSH report. I was ill for reasons I couldn’t pin down on an physical illness, but I do know I felt a little better shortly after I left even if some other symptoms developed later that day. I work in a highly pressurised environment and vicarious trauma is common. Yes, I am talking about mental health. An OSH report is the best way to reflect this, and being a social worker I encourage opened about this issue. I am aware of the perceptions (people still call it “stress leave” which to me reflects s form of victim blaming), but the best way to tackle the issue is to call it out.

So that covers it. It sounds like a lot to do in short space of time (less than an hour), but delayed or stretched out process leads to even longer degradation of work. I might as well stay off sick if I’m going to do nothing for the whole morning but focus on the previous two days. In this profession we consistently deal with situations that occur outside of our control; unforeseen crises and dilemmas. The importance in those moments is to absorb the new information, reassess, analyse and make a decision. Personal leave is no different in that scenario as an unexpected event, so there’s no reason to get caught by the swell treading water.


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