How to Make a Smooth Return to Work After a Disability Leave

Most people look forward to returning to work after a disability leave. It's a chance to reconnect with co-workers, re-engage with work, and get back to old routines. But the transition back to work can also be difficult. You may be returning with new priorities in your life or new restrictions on what you can do. Whatever your situation, there are ways to help smooth your return.

Find out what to expect when you return

Returning from a disability leave is a big change in your life. It can be even greater if you’re returning to your civilian job following a serious injury. In addition to the adjustments in your daily routine, you may not be returning to work exactly as you left. Your job or your capacity for work may be different now. As you prepare for your return, it will help to gather as much information as possible.

  • Talk with your health care provider about what to expect as you recover. Be clear about the physical requirements of your job and what you did before you went on leave. If your job requires lifting, will you be able to do this work immediately upon your return? If you need to stand or sit for hours, should you take a break at regular intervals?
  • Avoid returning to work too soon. Conscientious employees sometimes make the mistake of pushing for an early return to work. However, this could jeopardize your recovery and make the process take longer.
  • Talk with your leave coordinator if you’ll need accommodations at work. The person who manages your leave may be a human resources (HR) representative, a case manager outside the organization, or a union representative. Together, review your current capabilities and job description. Identify changes, such as a different schedule, a new chair, or a limit on travel that will allow you to return safely to productive work. You may find it helpful to visit the site for the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network and learn about different types of accommodations.
  • Talk with others who have had a similar injury or illness and returned to work. Ask them about their experience. What can they tell you about the first few days back at work? Ask about any supports that were helpful to them over time.

Plan your return with your manager

If you’ve been in touch with your manager throughout your leave, you’ve probably found ways to stay current about what's going on at work. As your return date approaches, you'll need to touch base more often with your manager. You'll also want to show your commitment to your job, your work group, and your organization.

  • Let your manager know as early as you can about any schedule adjustments or other accommodations you may need. Your organization's leave coordinator can help you make those arrangements with your manager. Some companies allow employees to do some work from home during their leave, if they have their physician's approval. If you're interested in working from home, be sure to discuss this with your leave coordinator so that you meet all company leave requirements.
  • Remember that you can keep medical information confidential. Only your organization’s leave coordinator or your contact in HR needs to know about your medical condition. If you want to keep some information confidential, decide what to say to your manager about your absence. Think, too, about what you would like your manager to say to others at work. The coordinator will be able to make suggestions based on how other employees have handled similar situations.
  • Talk about job responsibilities and work schedule. Discuss with your manager the work you will do once you get back. Talk about which tasks you can take on now and which you may not be able to manage until later. If you can't take on all of your former responsibilities right away, you might offer to increase your workload gradually. Also talk about your schedule and whether flexibility might help with the transition back to work. If flexibility is necessary for a medical reason, your leave coordinator can help you work out details with your manager.
  • Try to see things from your manager's point of view. Your manager must balance the needs of everyone in the department and see that the work gets done. You are the person closest to the work your job requires, and you can play an important role in helping your manager come up with business alternatives and staffing solutions. Work with your manager to find solutions that meet everyone's needs.
  • Follow up with regular meetings. After you go back to work, update your manager regularly. This will give you both a chance to re-evaluate your workload, see how you are managing, and determine whether business needs are being met. Regular meetings will also help you feel like part of the work group again. Use the meetings to assess your workload and be sure you aren't taking on too much too quickly. As you make progress toward recovery, you and your manager can adjust your responsibilities to reflect this.

Talk with co-workers

Co-workers need to know what to expect from you as you return and how your work will fit in with theirs. If you’re returning at less than full capacity, your manager will play a key role in explaining how tasks will get done. You may either want to speak with co-workers yourself about your limitations and work capacity or help your manager in explaining this to them.

Ideally, you want the people around you to understand what you can and cannot do, both when you first come back and later on, as your abilities change. Whether or not you share details of your condition with co-workers, it’s important for them to know your current capabilities.

  • Realize that co-workers may feel overworked. If you sense that co-worker resentment is affecting your work and that of your team, talk with your manager. You may be able to defuse the tension by helping co-workers understand what you are going through. Just explaining your struggles may help. Be sure to express your appreciation for their continuing support. Keep in mind that you may need your manager's help if co-workers feel overworked. Your manager might discuss work assignments with them, making it clear that what they see as "special treatment" is the organization’s normal response to an employee with a disability.
  • Work with your manager if co-workers want to keep your work. You may have a co-worker who is reluctant to give up a task assigned while you were on leave. If a junior person has taken on higher-level responsibilities in your absence, he or she may worry that your return will involve a "demotion." Your manager is responsible for dealing with these conflicts, but you can help. Discuss possibilities and your own preferences with your manager.
  • Suggest a staff meeting. Once you and your manager have decided which tasks you are resuming and which are being reassigned, suggest that your manager discuss any changes at a staff meeting. Use the meeting to communicate and clarify plans for managing these tasks and responsibilities.

Get the help and support you need

Many people can help with your transition back to work.

  • Your partner. Your home routines may have changed as a result of your injury or illness. You and your partner may need to talk about your changing responsibilities. If one of you feels burdened by cooking every night, you might buy takeout a couple of nights a week or share the cooking chores differently.
  • Friends and family. Those close to you can help you get the rest, exercise, and emotional support you need. Let them know what would help. If you wait for people to offer help, you may set yourself up for disappointment. Remember, too, that friends and relatives who have supported you may need a break. Make sure they have time to "recharge." Let them know how much you appreciate their efforts.
  • Co-workers. The people you work with might be willing to run errands for you or provide transportation to work. Again, let your needs be known, but remember that co-workers may need some time to understand and get used to your new limitations.
  • Your organization. Some organizations offer training programs or one-on-one guidance for employees in your situation. Yours may sponsor, be able to help organize, or refer you to support groups for people with similar conditions. Check with your HR department about what’s available.

Returning from a disability leave can be an enormous transition. With the help of your manager, your doctor, and your family, you can set up a plan for a smooth and successful return to work.


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